Mission Accomplished at Houston's NASA Johnson Space Center

Giant leaps in space exploration are immortalized at NASA Johnson Space Center—a place that’s as much about saluting the past as it is about inspiring future generations.

Arguably the two most iconic statements in the history of spaceflight are “Houston, Tranquility Base here; the Eagle has landed,” and “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Both were uttered by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969, announcing the landing and man’s first steps on the moon. 

Already one of the area’s top attractions, displaying more than 400 space artifacts that represent some of the most historic and greatest accomplishments known to man, all eyes turned to Space Center Houston, the official visitor center of NASA Johnson Space Center, from July 16-24, as it marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most remarkable feats of humankind. The success of Apollo 11 fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon before the decade was out, a goal he proclaimed to Congress on May 25, 1961.

Gene Kranz
Famed NASA flight director Gene Kranz (Courtesy NASA)

The nine-day affair celebrating the accomplishments of Apollo 11, its crew and the people who contributed to the mission is an event that will not be soon forgotten. Between a scheduled drop-in by the Golden Knights, the Army’s parachute team, at the opening ceremony, to the 1960s-themed Apollo 11 Mission Splashdown Party on July 24, the space program’s history literally came to life. Special events included lunches with astronaut families, panel discussions and a dinner with NASA flight director Gene Kranz.

One of the special touches that opened just in time for the celebration was the restoration of the Apollo Mission Control Center. Included were the Missions Operations Control Room (MOCR), Visitor Viewing Room, Simulation Control Room and the Summary Display Projection Room (“bat cave”).

“We want to keep the legacy of the Apollo era alive and preserve the Apollo Mission Control Center,” says William T. Harris, Space Center Houston president and CEO. “Thanks to the combined efforts of so many people, future generations can experience this iconic room exactly as it was when Neil Armstrong made his historic first steps on the Moon.”

Located in the Christopher C. Kraft Mission Control Center, the renovated Mission Control Center is part of the NASA Tram Tour, included in a general admission ticket.

Getting the national landmark, which made the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1985, back to exactly as it looked and operated during nine Gemini missions, 21 space shuttle missions and the Apollo era—specifically during the Apollo 11 landing—has to rank among one of the tougher missions to date.

Mission Operations Control Center
Getting the Mission Operations Control Room put together was a team effort. (Courtesy NASA)

Designers looked through archival footage, talked with flight controllers about their consoles and hit the smallest detail, down to wallpaper and the type of carpet on the floor. The consoles were taken from the center to the Kansas Cosmosphere for restoration and then returned.

The historic nature of the setting doesn’t apply to just the physical look, it gives a real-time effect of being in the Mission Control Center on July 20, 1969. Video images play on screens, chatter is heard between astronauts and flight controllers, and clocks in the room are synchronized to what’s on the screens and consoles. The viewing room will have 1960s-era TVs airing vintage CBS footage, while other areas are presented with real artifacts in them.

“We want you to feel like you stepped back in the Apollo era,” says Harris.

While the restoration process was a difficult one, it wasn’t the first daunting task for Space Center Houston, which went to great lengths in the development of Independence Plaza presented by Boeing. The impressive 240-ton facility includes an original NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft (SCA) with 80-ton shuttle replica Independence mounted to it. The shuttle replica had to be moved from Florida to Houston, while it took 40 days for the Boeing 747 (SCA) to be disassembled at Houston’s Ellington Field and transported to its current location.

To experience the massive exhibit, take an elevator to the top of a six-story tower and enter the shuttle’s flight deck before heading down a level to see its payload bay and take in its cramped living conditions. Then it’s on to NASA SCA 905 and go hands-on with interactive displays.

Independence Plaza is just one of seven permanent exhibits, including the NASA Tram Tour, and limited-run exhibits that honor the ongoing missions, future plans and history of the space program. That history began with the establishment of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston in 1961—opening in 1963 with Gemini IV as the first controlled flight—then renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in 1973. Today it is home to the astronaut corps; International Space Station Missions; and the Orion Program, a new spacecraft with goals of landing humans on Mars in the 2030s.

The feats of the space program are on display, delving heavily into the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz and Shuttle programs. The Starship Gallery immortalizes spacecraft and artifacts. Kranz, the flight director for the Gemini and Apollo programs, can be seen in his Apollo 17 vest, just one of the colorful vests he began wearing with the launch of Gemini 4.

Mercury Faith 7 capsule
Mercury Faith 7 capsule (Courtesy NASA)

The Starship Gallery also shows the important contributions from astronaut Gordon Cooper with his Mercury 9 “Faith 7” capsule that orbited for more than 34 minutes in 1963. The capsule’s rounded bottom defended against heat on re-entry and that design continued with the Gemini, Apollo and current Orion programs. His Gemini V spacecraft, also occupied by Charles “Pete” Conrad, which set a record for longest time in space by humans (seven days), is on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Astronaut Gallery displays spacesuits worn throughout the years, giving a close look at women astronauts. Displays include the T-38 flight training suit worn by Judith Resnik, who was in the first astronaut training class featuring women in 1978; inflight coveralls worn by Sally Ride, the first woman in space on Challenger (1983); and an Extravehicular Mobility Unit like the one worn by Kathryn Sullivan, the first woman to space walk. Among Sullivan’s three shuttle missions, she helped deploy the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.

Ever wonder what it’s like to live off-planet? The International Space Station Gallery takes away the guesswork. Learn about the mission involving astronaut Scott Kelly in which he and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent 340 consecutive days on the station, or be a participant in “Living in Space,” a live program detailing daily operations on the center.

As America continues to be leaders in the exploration of space, NASA Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston will be right there in the forefront.