The words “Houston we’ve had a problem” were spoken by astronaut Commander James A. Lovell on April 13th, 1970 during a failed NASA mission to the Moon aboard Apollo XIII (this was the seventh manned mission in the Apollo program and intended to be the third landing on the Moon until an oxygen tank burst 2 days after takeoff resulting in damage to a service module that was essential to the operations of the command module and causing the mission to be aborted). Those words were relayed back to the very control room you can see today on the “Historic Control Room tour” at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre on the outskirts of Houston, Texas.
The historic mission control room was used from 1965 to 1992 and is today a National Historic Landmark. The modern control rooms still used at the centre command NASA space missions and activity aboard the International Space Station.
Between the Johnson Space Centre (space mission control, training and development centre) and Space Centre Houston (museum) you can see many NASA space travel artifacts that paved the way for man to land on the moon and conduct regular missions into space. These include various early space capsules and a replica of the Space Shuttle which is known as “Explorer” (prior to the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011 this was on display at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex in Florida).
The big ticket item at Johnson Space Centre is the mighty Saturn V multi-staged liquid fuelled rocket. This is the space vehicle that took man to the Moon and back on the Apollo missions between 1967 – 1972 (first flight 1967, first manned flight 1968, Moon landings 1969 – 1972) and also launched the Skylab space station (3 missions between 1973 – 1974).
Skylab was in the Earth’s orbit from 1973 to 1979. I remember the demise of Skylab well, as parts of it crashed upon Western Australia and it made news right across the country! The training facility used by the Astronauts who served upon Skylab is also on display at the Space Centre Houston.
Walking around the Saturn V rocket you can not help but be overwhelmed by its size (363.0 feet / 110.6 metres long and 33.0 feet / 10.1 metres in diameter) and sheer power (the first stage of the rocket could produce 7,648,000 pounds of thrust)! 1960’s technology at it’s best!
While there do not miss the tour to the Astronaut training facility in the Johnson Space Centre, where you can see a mock-up International Space Station (ISS) a Russian Soyuz rocket and capsule, which with the retirement of the Space Shuttle is the current means of sending crew and supplies to the ISS. Although retired, there is also still part of a Space Shuttle training module in the facility along with various training areas that Astronauts use in preparation for travel into space.
Within the Astronaut training facility there is also a training version of the future Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Orion is being developed to bring NASA back to the forefront of space travel and will enable Astronauts to travel beyond a low Earth orbit to destinations such as the Moon, asteroids and even Mars.
Orion will be launched into space by NASA’s proposed Space Launch System (SLS) which is a heavy lift launch vehicle and kind of like a cross between the Saturn V rocket and the Space Shuttle launch system. The design is planned to be operated as a crewed version and an even larger cargo version.
An interesting highlight of my visit to the Astronaut training facility was seeing a number of new experimental vehicles for use by Astronauts on the surface of the Moon and potentially Mars some day. Now that’s something I would like to see in my lifetime, mankind on the surface of Mars!