Monday, August 22, 2011

Traveling with a Toddler: Houston and the Space Center.

After four nights away from home, I was determined we’d get out and about early on Friday to take in the sights around Houston. To this end I managed to get everyone up and out of bed and down to the second floor of the Embassy Suites for breakfast.

Hunter was more than a little groggy. She was practically hanging onto us for dear life. Once we finally got her untangled, I acquired for her a plate of melon pieces, scrambled eggs, hash browns and raisins with a side of yogurt -- all the sort of things she’d eat for breakfast at home. We also set her up with a treat of chocolate milk, which she took to immediately.

After Paul went and picked up his plate of unholy pork (a pile of bacon and sausages with a little bit of eggs) I went back and ordered up a vegetable omelet and a couple of pancakes. Hunter eyeballed those pancakes when I came back, and so I ended up sharing them with her. We decided the next morning we’d be getting her pancakes.

Back in our room, Paul went about getting ready while Hunter lounged on the couch. She watched TV and sprawled on the neat furniture. I think she really enjoyed it.

A bit later, we headed out to the Space Center, down in the Clear Lake area. It took us about 40 minutes to negotiate traffic out that way, $6 to park and about a minute to find a good spot in the parking lot.

The first thing I noticed was different were the security details. Paul and I had come out to the Space Center in 2000 and there had been none of that. Now you’re checked for explosives and weapons. I was pleased we were able to keep our cold beverages without any issue.

We scooted Hunter around to where there were lots of little experimental stations set up, showing things like centrifugal force, flight simulation and how air could hold up an inflatable ball. I noticed it was time for a showing of the film in the Destiny Theater and we headed right over.

Hunter was initially impressed with the film that showed the history of the U.S. space program. But when it got to Challenger’s explosion, she wanted to leave. It made her sad. Honestly, it made Paul and I tear up, too. But we stayed through the end of the production.

One thing you should note if you go -- there’s a podium in the theater. It’s the same podium from which John F. Kennedy made this famous statement at Rice University in 1962:

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too ...

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

From there we went into the darkened gallery of original and replica artifacts from the space race -- like the original Apollo 17 capsule and space suits from several generations of the program. Hunter was at first fascinated and scared by the Skylab trainer -- it is an impressively large piece of work, I have to agree. But when Paul and I both insisted, she went in with us. She told us seeing the mannequin in the “space shower” “that guy is all wet!” and she got a kick out of the mannequins shown “spinning” in the space.

We took some time to look around the place. There is now a large maze-like vertical playground for the kids called the Martian Matrix just outside the gallery entrance, though Hunter wasn’t able to utilize it (kids must be 48 inches or taller to play there -- Hunter is in the 38 inch range). There was a large physical sports section in the middle of the building -- at first I didn’t know what it had to do with the space program but later figured out it was a fun way for young astronauts to “train” and get their bodies in shape. We also saw the “Adventure,” the nose and cockpit of a shuttle mock-up you can actually enter and experience.

Then it was off on the tram ride. The Space Center offers two different tours each day that take you into Johnson Space Center to visit Mission Control and other areas of the facility. We went through another security sweep -- this time having to pull everything out of our pockets and have a bag search -- before boarding the open air tram and heading over to the real space center. They didn’t have the search or any of the security last time we came -- but that was way back in July 2000.

We could barely hear the announcements overhead, but it’s not like it mattered. Hunter was fascinated not just with what she was seeing, but what she heard. There was a Latino family behind us, a couple of twin boys and their parents, and they were all talking back and forth. To me it sounded like the boys were asking their parents questions and their parents were answering. Hunter listened intently.

We passed by the little Texas Heritage Farm on one side and a long building with a painting of a Saturn 5 rocket on the other. I recalled having seen a Saturn 5 rocket right there, and hoped it hadn’t been scrapped. We also passed by one building where the narrator told us the new Orion project was underway, our next big segment in the race to space.

When we got to Mission Control we all quietly disembarked and headed up a staircase of 54 steps to one of the Mission Control studios. Hunter was insistent that she take every step going up, so we let her. In the observation area, we walked down to the front row, sat and listened as a NASA interpreter told us all about Mission Control, the history of the space program, the purpose of each console in the room and the mission patches on the walls. She also talked about the ongoing International Space Station mission, being monitored from a different Mission Control Room, and pointed out a live feed from the station itself.

I noticed that she stopped at one point and said “We’re still here, we’re not going anywhere. NASA may have lost three or four thousand employees, but we still have a mission to accomplish.” That made me sorta sad. When we’d last come there was all this excitement about what was ahead. We’d been in to see the X-33 in its design station and had been into half a dozen different location around the space center. Not this time.

We went down the 54 steps back to the tram -- Hunter took all but the last dozen before we scooped her up and headed down. Back aboard, we went past the reconstruction effort on the administration building, noted lots of bicycles parked outside each facility and paused as the announcer told us about building 31N, which houses all the moon rocks brought back during the Apollo missions.

And then there was a pause on our way back, as we passed a stand of trees on each side of the road. On one side were a grove of seven trees planted one year after the Challenger explosion, each in remembrance of one of the astronauts. We were told there was also one planted when astronaut Gordon Cooper died of natural causes. On the other side of the row there were seven trees planted in memory of the seven astronauts that died in the final flight of the Columbia in 2003. It was a somber stop.

I thought this would be the last stop, but it wasn’t. We were dropped off with little explanation (just that “another tram will be along in a few minutes”) outside the Saturn 5 building. There were a couple of old smaller rockets and a shuttle engine outside the structure. We went in quickly, seeking and finding air conditioning -- and the Saturn 5 rocket that had been there all along. This one is just one of three of the rockets in existence; it’s on loan from the Smithsonian and has resided at Johnson Space Center since 1977.

It’s kind of sobering, realizing just how big the rocket is, especially after seeing the Apollo 17 capsule earlier in the day. Most of the three stage rocket held fuel. This one had sat in the “yard” at Johnson Space Center for over 20 years and had started to rust and fall apart. An effort was made to save it, and in 1999 the funds were sought to protect it. Today it’s been fully restored and sits on Astroturf in its own climate controlled building. On the far side there’s a small exhibit on its restoration, then a series of exhibits on the astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. Each one talks about what the mission accomplished, who was on it, what the capsules were named. Apollo 1’s is a memorial to the three astronauts that died on the training pad. Apollo 13’s talks about the heroism and do-it-to-it-ness of its astronauts. Apollo 17’s quote about returning to the surface of the moon saddens me; it was spoken before I was born, and no American has been back on the surface since.

We missed the next tram to come along and sat out in the 100 degree south Texas heat waiting for the next one. Hunter took a few drinks from a proffered juice bottle. Once the next one came along we boarded and headed back.

The facility, which had been just packed earlier, had started to weed out. I changed Hunter in the restroom and then we went over to the area for small kids by the big kids playground, but she balked at being in there. She wanted to play with the bigger kids in the big athletic complex in the middle of the building. So Paul took her while I perused the gift shop.

When they were done, they joined me, and I showed Hunter a lot of different gift shop items. She didn’t have much interest in most of them (the Barbie-doll clones of female astronauts with luggage cases turned all of us cold) but she did show an interest in an astronaut refrigerator magnet. In the end, we left empty-handed. I think she looks at gift shops as an extension of the museums and such. If she keeps that point of view then we might save money. If I weren’t photographing and chronicling these trips I think it’d be different, and a souvenir might be sought.

There was a lot of traffic on the way back into town -- lots of folks driving into Houston on a Friday night. We discovered the Astros were playing, and that there was an NFL pre-season game set for the next day between the Saints and the Texans at Reliant Stadium. When we arrived at the hotel it was packed out.

We briefly joined the Manager’s Reception again and listened to the crowd about us. There were more children about, and that was kinda cool. We went from there upstairs, where we got refreshed and took a few minutes down time.

A short while later, we decided to take a recommendation left by the general manager to try out a Houston burger. The hotel shuttle took us to Christian’s Tailgate on Bigby Street and dropped the three of us off.

For a moment I inwardly cringed, wondering why I had brought my child to this bar. But on entering I saw a sign saying it was a family place, and the waitresses were sweet on Hunter.

We ha a seat and looked through the menu, even though we’d already decided on what we were going to eat. The waitress returned and we ordered up a hot dog kids meal for Hunter and a one pound burger to split.

Hunter was just singing along with some song in her head right there in the middle of the restaurant, but no one cared. There were several different games on the overhead TV sets and several large groups of people gathered here and there. The cacophony covered up just about any utterance she was likely to give.

Our dishes came out. Her hot dog had a great char on it -- not black, just definitely roasted instead of microwaved. She was all into her dog, right off the bat.

We’d asked for the condiments on the side on our burger and they’d left everything off -- in a basket on the side. The burger was two massive patties forced down onto a regular sized burger bun. I photographed it, cut it in half, photographed it again and let Paul doctor up his half.

I think pink in the middle is the default for Texas burgers, and that makes me happy. The middle of the burger was a good medium to medium rare, light on the spice with a definitive flavor of Worchestershire sauce, a little cumin and a lot of black pepper.

Thing is, the burger was so tall that even without the other toppings you almost had to unhinge your jaw to get your mouth around it. It was a singularly tall double burger -- and somehow we’d forgotten to have cheese added to it. No matter. It was pretty good.

Dinner done, we called the shuttle and took it back to the room, where Hunter played with Punchy and her triceratops and “Jelly-Pus” from Moody Gardens until we started to dwindle down for the day. After five days on the road we were starting to weary, and it didn’t take much for me to convince her to come crash in bed with me. This time, though, before we went to bed we clipped her fingernails and toenails, which had kept me up the night before.

We had planned to take her to the pool that night, but the wind was kicking up again and somehow on that third story terrace it seemed a good 20 degrees cooler than the rest of Houston. I guess that’s something for us really to keep in mind for next time.

It was all right. We had more packing in the morning, and a trip to Houston’s Museum District.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Be kind.