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Geek Pilgrimage: Johnson Space Center

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From the Saturn V rocket that launched us to the Moon, to the Orion capsule that will carry us to Mars, Space Center Houston is a sacred site for those who dream of reaching for the stars.

As President Trump commits the US to return to the Moon and venture to Mars, the eyes of the world will once again turn to Houston, Texas. Not long after President John F. Kennedy first set America's sights on the moon in 1961, Houston became home to NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center – later dubbed the Johnson Space Center after Kennedy's successor. It's home to Mission Control, which has been the trusted voice in the ear of US astronauts since the Gemini program.

Today Johnson is still Mission Control for the International Space Station, along with the fledgling Orion capsule which is destined for Mars. As such Johnson isn't completely open to the public, but Space Center Houston next door offers a slice of space history which includes tours into Johnson.

The tour also takes you to Rocket Park where you'll see Wernher von Braun's dreams brought to life in the Redstone rocket which carried the Mercury astronauts into space. Alongside it is one of the greatest engineering feats of the modern age: the Saturn V rocket which helped the Apollo astronauts break the bonds of Earth and sail to the Moon.

Keep in mind that Johnson is home to Mission Control but it isn't a launch site, with US manned missions generally lifting off from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Rockets save fuel by launching to the east, so launching from the Florida coast allows them to discard spent stages into the ocean.

Pre-flight check

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Johnson is about an hour's drive south of Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, roughly a US$50 Uber ride, or only half that if you're coming from the middle of town. On a weekend you might get a slightly better run, but it could be much worse in peak hour so do your research.

It's worth planning ahead, especially if you're on a tight schedule. Check out spacecenter.org before you visit, as opening hours vary between 9am to 10am and 5pm to 7pm during the year.

It's possible to book your US$30 Space Center Houston entry ticket online – plus I'd pay the extra US$6 for the audio tour. At the same time you can book a free tram tour ticket, which will help you skip the queues on busy days.

You'll want at least three hours to see the highlights, but allow at least another hour if you're passionate about space stuff. You could easily spend an entire day at Space Center Houston if you want to see absolutely everything including the short introductory film, other documentaries and the three live shows with people talking about living and working in space.

When you arrive you can pick up a map, daily schedule and audio tour at the desk inside on your right. You can also check in luggage for US$7, which is handy if you're making a detour on your way to or from the airport.

Local Uber driver Duane tends to sit in the carpark at the end of the day, knowing he'll likely pick up a tourist dashing to the airport. If you're looking for Texan BBQ tips, Duane is your man.

Look to the stars

If you're in a rush to see the Saturn V rocket then head to the back of the complex to jump on the tram tour, as you can't just walk to Rocket Park.

Tours depart every 15 minutes with alternating destinations – one takes you to see Orion Mission Control while the next goes to the astronaut training centre. Both these  'Red' and 'Blue'  tours stop at Rocket Park on the way back, where you can spend as long as you like and then catch the next tram going past.

Pressed for time I opted for Mission Control, but if you're not in a rush you could take both tours and skip Rocket Park the second time around.

When you arrive at Rocket Park you're greeted by the sight of Little Joe II, used for Apollo high altitude abort testing. Alongside it sits the Mercury/ Redstone rocket used to launch the first US astronauts into space, along with giant stage 1 and 2 engines from the Saturn V.

The Redstone rocket is a direct descendant of the German V2 rockets which rained down on London during the Second World War.

If you can make the trip to the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin you'll see the combustion chambers from the V2 rockets, designed by Wernher von Braun before he and his team were taken to the US after the war to work on intercontinental missiles and space rockets. It's a powerful reminder that our journey to the stars began in a very dark place.

Go for liftoff

Johnson's Saturn V rocket lives in a 120-metre-long building in Rocket Park, having been fully restored after spending 30 years exposed to the elements. Lying on its side, the rocket is split into its three main stages so you can see the engines which propelled them.

The entrance brings you in at the bottom of the rocket, where you're dwarfed by the cluster of five Rocketdyne F-1 engines which lifted the Saturn V off the launch pad. Like the rest of this rocket they're genuine spares which were never fired after the Apollo program was cut short. All the stage 1 engines actually used during the Apollo missions fell back to earth and sank to a watery grave in the Atlantic.

Even if you've stood behind a Space Shuttle, such as the Endeavour at the California Science Center, you'll be awestruck by the size of these five engines which together stand three storeys high – around twice as high as the Shuttle's three main engines.

There's no-one rushing you through, so step back and take a moment to breathe it in. As you slowly walk the rocket's length, take in the enormity of the Saturn V and its role in achieving our age-old dream of walking on the Moon. It's still the most powerful rocket ever built and holds the record for carrying the heaviest payload.

Breaking the rocket into sections helps illustrate how the three-stage rocket worked, with the five smaller J-2 engines visible on the second stage as well as the single J-2 engine on the third stage.

This third stage carried the Apollo spacecraft – consisting of the Command, Service and Lunar Modules. Only the droplet-shaped Command Module at the tip would make the return journey to splash down in the ocean and bring the astronauts back to the Earth.

Once you've done a lap of the rocket, stop to read the timeline of the Apollo program along the far wall, from the Apollo 1 launch pad fire which cost three lives to the Apollo 17 final moon landing.

Then take another slow lap of the rocket, admiring every detail from those hulking F-1 engines to the needle-like Launch Escape System on top of the Command Module, designed to carry the astronauts to safety should a launch go wrong.

The right stuff

Back in Space Center Houston, the main attractions branch off Main Plaza. This central area has a bit of a Scienceworks/ Powerhouse/ Questacon feel to it with kid-friendly displays and simulators as well as several live shows during the day.

Don't be discouraged if you're looking for something a little more serious, as there's plenty at Space Center Houston to impress hardcore space fans. We'll come back to Main Plaza, as the adjacent Destiny Theatre is the best place to start your journey.

Destiny Theatre offers a 15-minute primer on the history of the US space program which helps set the scene. From here you move into Starship Gallery, where the audio guide will take you through the highlights, but if you're lucky you might be able to latch onto a tour guide like Mike leading a group out of Destiny Theatre – who will take you from the Goddard rocket as far as Skylab.

The real deal

After the Goddard rocket you encounter the Friendship 7 Mercury and Gemini V capsules – not life-size models but the actual capsules which survived their journey into space and back.

One of the great things about Johnson is wherever possible you're either looking at the real thing or a life-size replica – often used for astronaut training on the ground – rather than simple models.

You'll find a Lunar Module cockpit trainer and the docking ring for the Apollo/Soyuz joint mission with the Soviets, plus around the corner you'll discover the actual Apollo 17 Command Module. If you're keen on computing you can see an Apollo guidance system in the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

After passing Johnson's manned capsules you can also walk through the full-sized Skylab training module – giving you a feel for where astronauts lived and worked during the 1970s. The space station was actually built inside the first stage shell of a Saturn V.

A smooth landing

Your next stop is Independence Plaza, which probably caught your eye from the car park as it's not every day that you see a Space Shuttle mounted on the back of a Boeing 747.

Dubbed NASA 905, the plane is the actual 747 used to test the prototype Shuttle Enterprise's gliding capabilities before Columbia's maiden flight in 1981. It was later one of two 747s used to transport the Shuttles around the country.

The Space Shuttle was designed to be a reusable craft: launching upright like a rocket with detachable boosters but later landing on wheels like a plane. To simplify the design they decided to forgo traditional engines and just let the Shuttle glide to the ground.

Houston's Shuttle is the Independence (formerly Explorer), which never actually made it into space. Houston was unfortunate to miss out on one of the decommissioned Shuttles, instead Independence is a full-scale replica taken from Kennedy Space Center after Kennedy inherited the retired Atlantis shuttle.

Even if you've seen an actual Shuttle – such as Endeavour at the California Science Center, which still bears reentry scars – it's still worth a look at Independence because you can get much more up close and personal.

As you head up the stairs stop to look in the 747 first for some history on the Shuttle's design and testing, before heading into the Independence's cargo bay where you'll see the famed Canadarm along with a satellite awaiting deployment. Then head up to the cockpit, living quarters and airlock to imagine that you're bound for orbit.

In the right place and the right time

Back in Main Plaza there's plenty more to see in the Astronaut Gallery, International Space Station and Mission to Mars sections, along with short films running in Space Center Theater.

If you're pressed for time, make sure you at least check out Mission to Mars, which features a full-scale engineering model of the new Orion Command Module which is already undergoing flight tests for a trip to the Red Planet (it's only one component of the Orion craft).

The exhibit at the very centre of Main Plaza changes from time to time, it's hard to see what's inside but make sure you check it out. It might be something extraordinary, even by Johnson's standards.

Right now the Apollo 11 "Columbia" Command Module lies at the heart of Main Plaza, on loan from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum until March 18, 2018.

The capsule isn't behind glass, it's sitting tantalisingly just out of reach so you can see every detail of the battered capsule which carried Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon and back.

Columbia makes for quite a sight, especially with the Orion Command Module sitting behind – reminding us of where we've been and showing us where we're headed next. If you're too young to remember Apollo and Armstrong's first steps on the Moon, Orion promises to be another giant leap for a new generation of star gazers.

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