Visiting Space Center Houston

Last weekend we were in Houston and paid a visit to Space Center Houston, the visitors center for NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC).

NASA Johnson Space Center
NASA Johnson Space Center

Like Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Space Center Houston (SCH) is a pretty fun place to visit. It’s not quite as large as KSC, but it’s got some pretty sweet exhibits including Independence Plaza that features the Boeing 747 that ferried the space shuttles across the country.

Independence Plaza
Independence Plaza at Space Center Houston

I highly recommend the 90 minute tram tour that will take you into NASA JSC. If you go early and catch the first or second tour (SCH opens at 9 or 10 AM. See the calendar for hours), you’ll avoid the long line. The tram tour takes you into JSC where you’ll get to go into the Christopher C Craft Mission Control building, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, and Rocket Park.

At Rocket Park, you’ll see some of the rocket engines that powered the Saturn V, rockets used for the Mercury and early Apollo programs, and the king of rockets, the Saturn V.

The Saturn V at SCH is one of three remaining Saturn V rockets and was restored fairly recently.

From the SCH website:

There are only three Saturn V rockets on display in the world. The rocket at NASA Johnson Space Center is the only one comprised of all flight-certified hardware. The other two rockets are made of flight hardware, mock-ups and test components. The three segments, called stages, contain the powerful engines needed to lift off, entering orbit to reach the moon. In total, 13 Saturn V rockets launched into space.

When you’re back from the tour, head over to Independence Plaza where you can wander through the NASA 905 SCA (Shuttle Carrier Aircraft) and the Shuttle Independence, a replica space shuttle. This is another one you probably want to get to early in the day so that it’s not too crowded. We went first thing in the morning on our second day visiting SCH, and had the shuttle and 747 pretty much all to ourselves.

Make sure to stop in the food court where you can have lunch sitting next to the Galileo shuttlecraft (NCC-1701/7) used in the Star Trek episode Galileo Seven. This is the actual set prop that was used in the episode and fully restored. You can read about the Galileo’s history and the restoration at startrek.com.

Before leaving SCH (or before the doors open if you got there too early), make sure to walk the scale model of Solar System. It starts over on the left side of the parking lot near the SCH building and goes around the perimeter of the parking lot toward the main entrance.

Of course, the rest of the exhibits at SCH are pretty cool too. Lots of great shows, interactive displays and an impressive collection of space and space program artifacts. It’s a great place to spend a couple of days exploring while you’re in Houston.

Mammoths, alligators and butterflies. Oh my!

One of the stops we made on our trip last week was a stop in Gainesville, FL to meet up with one of our friends who just started a post-doc at the University of Florida. After having lunch together, we all headed off to the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus.

Mammoth!
Mammoth!

It’s a pretty nifty museum with a lot of neat interactive displays. Great place to take the kids.

One of these is not like the others
One of these is not like the others

Part of the museum is the Butterfly Rainforest, a really cool place to get up close with hundreds of butterflies. Watch them fluttering all around you, landing on flowers, and even you if you stand still long enough.

Then we went for a walk to the Lake Alice Conservation Area where we were treated to some very nice views of the lake, turtles and an alligator.

UF is a pretty big campus, and seems like a pretty nice place to walk around.

Back to Kennedy Space Center

The Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex is one of those places I never get tired of visiting. We road-tripped back there over the weekend to get in one more visit before  the multi-day passes we purchased last year expired.

You'll need a pretty big tree for this ornament
You’ll need a pretty big tree for this ornament

On this visit, Connie noticed that the Welcome sign above the door to the Space Shop welcomed visitors in 9 languages, including Klingon.

yI'el
yI’el

We went there over two days, and spent the second day at the Saturn V exhibit building. The bus tour takes you past the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Next to the VAB they’re working on building a new launch platform that will be used by NASA’s SLS rocket. It’s an impressively large structure and even larger than the launch platform used for the shuttle.

The bus then takes you past Launch Pad 39A. The last time I was on the bus tour, the pad was one of the stops and people were able to get off the bus and go onto the launch platform. 39A is being used by SpaceX now, so it’s not a stop on the tour anymore. I was on the wrong side of the bus and couldn’t get any decent photos when we went by.

The Apollo/Saturn V Center is always impressive, and it’s pretty easy to spend 2 or three hours exploring all the exhibits here. Next to the Atlantis exhibit, it’s my favourite exhibit at KSC.

Saturn V main engines
Saturn V main engines

A new exhibit (new since my last visit to the Saturn V building anyway) is a memorial to the Apollo I astronauts (Ed White, Virgil Grissom, and Roger Chaffee) who died when a fire started in the command module. It’s a nice exhibit featuring personal items belonging to each of the astronauts as well as the hatch from the command module.

Apollo I hatch
Apollo I hatch

Next time you go, make sure to reserve plenty of time for the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

Cruising to Alaska – Victoria, BC

After a day of cruising from the Endicott Arm, the final port of call for the cruise was Victoria, BC.

By now, I had managed to come down with a cold that left me a little drained and worn out, but not bad enough that I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the cruise.

After getting some breakfast, I headed off the ship with my sister and niece into Victoria. She wanted to go to Craigdarroch Castle, so we found a map (conveniently provided at the border entry) and walked over. It’s a bit of walk from the cruise terminal, but not hard and the weather was nice.

Our walk took us through some residential neighbourhoods, past the BC Legislature building and along the streets of downtown Victoria.

BC Legislature building
BC Legislature building
Giant sequoia tree
Giant sequoia tree

After about 30-45 minutes of walking (wasn’t really paying attention), we arrived at Craigdarroch Castle, a large Victorian mansion built by Robert Dunsmuir who made a lot of money in coal mining.

Craigdarroch Castle
Craigdarroch Castle
Craigdarroch Castle
Craigdarroch Castle

It’s a large, impressive building with an interesting history. The Dunsmuir family only lived in it a relatively short time (Robert Dunsmuir died before the castle was completed), and the mansion spent the rest of the time used for institutional purposes (military hospital, college, music conservatory, office space). The restoration and use as a museum was only a fairly recent thing. They’ve done a pretty good job of preserving and restoring the interior, including re-acquiring some of the Dunsmuir’s possessions.

One of the dining rooms in Craigdarroch Castle
One of the dining rooms in Craigdarroch Castle

After the castle, we walked back toward the downtown area and stopped for lunch at a place called J & J Wonton Noodle House. I went with the wonton noodle soup bowl, and it was pretty tasty. Would definitely go there again.

Walked over to Victoria’s Chinatown area and saw the big Chinese Gate.

Chinese gate in Victoria's Chinatown
Chinese gate in Victoria’s Chinatown
Lion statue
Lion statue

It was about time to head back to the ship, so we didn’t get to wander around Chinatown too much.

On the way back, we wandered through some open air markets near Chinatown and also at the marina near the Legislature building.

Marina market
Marina market

At the cruise port, we found this neat sundial type thing where you stand at a spot depending on the time of year and use your shadow to see what time it is.

About 3-ish (+1h for DST) according to my neice
About 3-ish (+1h for DST) according to my niece

Had a good time doing this little bit of wandering around Victoria. Will have to visit again and spend some more time here.

Back to the boat!
Back to the boat!

Next stop, back to Seattle.

Cruising to Alaska – To the fjord

The original cruise itinerary called for the ship to head to the Tracy Arm fjord and the Sawyer glacier at the end of the fjord. According to the ship captain though, there was too much ice in the Tracy Arm so he took the ship down the neighbouring Endicott Arm instead.

The ship was offering an all you can eat breakfast buffet in the Izumi Japanese restaurant (one of the specialty restaurants on the ship) for the fjord trip for $25/person, so we took advantage of it. The breakfast buffet (more of a brunch thing really) consisted of a ramen station, several types of sushi (rolls and nigiri) various dumplings, omlettes, skewered meats and sliced fruits. Being up on deck 13, Izumi offered a pretty good vantage point for the journey up and down the fjord.

As we ate a leisurely breakfast, we watched the mountains drift by. Quite remarkable. Soon chunks of ice started appearing in the water, and then the glacier was visible up ahead.

Cruising up Endicott Arm
Cruising up Endicott Arm
At the end of Endicott Arm
At the end of Endicott Arm

At the end of the arm, about 0.5 nautical mile from the glacier, the captain stopped the ship and made it do a 360° spin so that everybody on the ship could get a view of the glacier.

Endicott Arm glacier
Endicott Arm glacier
Endicott Arm glacier
Endicott Arm glacier

(I did some colour level adjustment of my photos with Gimp, so the glacier appears a little bit more blue than it actually is, but not too much).

It’s a pretty remarkable sight. From where we were sitting in Izumi, the end of the fjord looked pretty narrow without a whole lot of extra room for the ship to spin around in. At a later Q&A session with the captain and some senior officers, the captain said there was at least a couple hundred meters of space between the ship and the sides of the fjord. Plenty of room.

The ship stayed there for a while, letting everybody get a good look at the glacier, then sailed back up the arm.

Returning up the Endicott Arm
Returning up the Endicott Arm
Returning up the Endicott Arm
Returning up the Endicott Arm

This was a pretty cool side journey on the cruise.

Next stop – Victoria, BC