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OUT OF THIS WORLD: SPACE CENTER, HOUSTON

by Susan Deefholts

The sliver of moon rock is black. It has been worn smooth-eroded by the touch of millions of hands.

This rock has been on a long journey. It has voyaged through space on one of the past lunar missions. Now it is here at the Space Center Houston, firmly embedded in its display-one of the few samples of moon rock in the world that is available for the public to touch.

Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by the starry canopy of the night sky. I'd look up and dream of other worlds, imaging what it would be like to explore them for myself.

And now, here is a small piece of rock, taken from "out there." I rub its smooth surface with my index finger once more, grinning delightedly.

My husband glances at his watch. "The tour's about to start."

This isn't just any tour. This is the Level 9 Tour-a comprehensive, behind-the-scenes experience of the work being done at NASA. By comparison, the regular tram tours barely scratch the surface.

Our guide, Brenda, hands us our VIP passes, and then sends us through the security check.

One of the first things that strike us is just how dangerous these missions really are. Breaking out of the atmosphere is enormously hazardous, and surviving in an environment where regulating something as fundamental as the air we breathe, is also a frightening thought.

In the highly flammable atmosphere inside a spacecraft, something as tiny as a machinery malfunction that causes a small spark can mean death by fire for the entire mission. Up there, all our most basic instincts-such as the sense of what is up and what is down-are invalidated.

Nothing is familiar once the Earth's atmosphere is breached.

But NASA works to change that by putting its astronauts through a rigorous familiarization program.

"We don't want them to have any surprises up there," Brenda says as she leads us into the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, a vast swimming pool that is the closest we can get to weightlessness on Earth.

As we enter the observation area, two astronauts in full gear are underwater, working on a mock-up of the exterior of a space ship. Monitors provide us with an underwater perspective.

"Space suits are cumbersome to work in, particularly in zero-gravity, so these drills are essential," Brenda tells us, as we watch them perform their manoeuvres under the supervision of half a dozen divers who, for safety reasons, are ready to intervene if anything goes wrong.

As we continue, moving from building to building, we see a vast array of labs and research facilities, all working to advance flight technology. There is mock-up after mock-up, each created to prepare the astronauts for a different challenge or manoeuvre-and we begin to get a true inkling of what it really takes to send someone out into space.

Two hours later, we are sitting at the old Mission Control.

This is one of the perks of the Level 9 Tour. We get to sit at the same desks and snap photos of each other playing with the same buttons that the techs actually used for the old space missions; people on the regular tram tours, on the other hand, can only sit in the separate observation area as onlookers.

We also get access to the observation room of the current Mission Control. Monitors display a live feed from a camera mounted on a ship that's in orbit. The mission must be going well-everyone seems relaxed. A couple of the guys turn and grin at us as we snap our pictures.

Our final stop is a vast hangar, where the backup version of the original rocket used on the first lunar mission is stored. The three separate sections have gaps between them, with steps leading up, so we can look in.

The day has been a dream come true for me. And I'm not alone. One of the other people on the tour is an aeronautics engineer from India. He shakes his head. "This is all so amazing. Growing up, I saw photos of those missions-all this is what inspired me to become an engineer in the first place!"

IF YOU GO:

Admission costs approx US$20.00 and includes the 90-minute tram tours.

Level 9 Tours are 5 hours long. They include lunch where the astronauts eat and two days' admission to the Space Center. It costs USD $80 and is limited to a maximum of 12 people per day, since the tour passes through several working areas.

Booking ahead is recommended. The minimum age is 14, with no exceptions.
For more information, visit: www.spacecenter.org/

Photos: Susan Deefholts

1. New Mission Control Room
2. Author's husband Tom Nagy "working" in Old Mission Control Room
3. Ship used on original lunar mission
4. Author's husband Tom Nagy, "acting" Flight Director, Old Mission Control Room

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

 


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