The Best Things To Do At NASA in Houston

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Fewer than 700 people have been to space but with a visit to Space Center Houston in Texas, you can explore space without leaving planet Earth. In this post, I’ll share details of my visit so you know what to see and what to expect.

About Space Center Houston

Space shuttle picture at NASA

Space Center Houston opened in 1992. Since then, it has become the main tourist attraction in Houston. As well as being a Smithsonian (affiliated) space museum, it’s a world-leading science education center. Space Center Houston is also home to the Official Visitor Center of NASA Johnson Space Center, where NASA’s space program can be seen in action. (Related: 30 Best Things To Do in Washington DC).

For visitors, it’s worth thinking of the space center as having two parts: the space museum with its exhibits, which you can freely explore, and NASA Johnson Space Center, which you can only visit on a tram tour.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live during the 1960s when the Space Race was on but the 21st century is still packed with space travel excitement from Virgin Galactic to Space X to NASA’s current space missions. And if you want to get as close to the action at an affordable price and by spending just a day, visiting Space Center Houston is the way to do it.

Related: How to Spend One Day at the Grand Canyon

Diagram with lunar soil by moon at NASA

The museum and NASA host over a million visitors a year, and the center is packed with:

  • more than 400 space artifacts
  • a 250,000-square-foot complex for education
  • exhibits and interactive experiences

Below are the main highlights to see at the center.

Tip: If you’re there for half a day, start with a tram tour. If you have longer, I recommend starting with the Starship Gallery (to get some space history) and then taking the tram tour.

NASA Tram Tours

Collage of the tram tour including building and logo

The NASA facility sprawls across 1,600 acres of Space Center Houston and is where astronauts are actively trained. For obvious reasons, you can’t wander around NASA on your own. But you can take a guided tram tour, which is an absolute highlight of any visit to the center.

There are 3 tram tours you can take.

Historic Mission Control Tram Tour

Collage of mission control and astronaut at NASA.

Mission Control is the must-see location at NASA. It’s where the first lunar landing was monitored. And where, on 20 July 1969 Neil Armstrong famously spoke from the moon, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Followed later by, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

You must buy an extra ticket for this tram tour. Book online in advance and add it to your General Admission Ticket. Tickets sell out fast so book as far ahead as possible.

Astronaut Training Facility Tram Tour

Inside Building 9 for astronaut space training at NASA.

At Building 9, the Astronaut Training Building, you get to walk on an elevated walkway through the facility where astronauts are trained. You’ll also see engineers working hard on the next phase of space vehicles. This felt like a pretty surreal experience – like, real astronauts.

This tram tour is included in your General Admission Ticket. Visit the Guest Service Desk on arrival to collect a boarding pass. First come, first served. Visit early to secure a ticket. Can’t be booked online in advance.

George W.S. Abbey Rocket Park Tram Tour

Rocket at Saturn V rocket park.

Don’t worry if you don’t get onto either of the other tram tours, the Rocket Park (Saturn V Complex) was one of my favorite parts of visiting the Space Center.

Rocket at Space Center Houston.

The tram tour will drop you off at Rocket Park, which is littered with rockets. The main highlight, however, is Saturn V, the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever to be built and operated. Lying down and at 36 stories tall and taking 2 minutes to walk from end to end, it was physically impossible to take a picture of the entire rocket but trust me when I say that it was a staggering sight. There are only 3 Saturn V rockets left, and this is one of them. The others are at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, which I’ve also seen.

This Tram Tour is included in your General Admission Ticket. No boarding pass is needed. Simply join the line at the tram tour area. Can’t be booked online in advance.

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Starship Gallery

Tripod on the moon picture.

I was advised to get straight on the tram tour of the NASA facilities when I arrived, but I’m going to make a different suggestion – go to the Starship Gallery first (unless you’re on a really short visit). The gallery is a walk through space exploration history. Not only are you treated to a movie and overview of the Space Race, but you also get to see many of the amazing artifacts including the Lunar Roving Vehicle Trainer and a piece of moon rock which you can touch.

The highlights of the gallery include include:

  • Apollo 17 Command Module
  • Mercury 9 “Faith 7”
  • Gemini V
  • Skylab 1G Trainer
  • Lunar Rover Trainer
  • Launch and Entry Suit
  • Lunar Module LTA-8
  • JF Kennedy Lectern
Picture of man in spacesuit upside down.

Independence Plaza

Whatever you do, don’t miss Independence Plaza. There, you can step inside a unique, gigantic Boeing airplane that was designed to carry space shuttles. So, a plane carrying a shuttle. Kids absolutely love this part of the Space Center. Adults, too.

Mission Mars

Ever wondered what it might be like to visit Mars? You can visit a simulated version of it at the Mission Mars exhibition. Touch a Mars rock, see a Mars sunset, and learn about the history of our mission to get to the red planet. Truly fascinating stuff.

International Space Station Gallery

And what about being inside the International Space Center? You can get a feel for it at the gallery here. The ISS is the largest structure built in space and it orbits the planet at more than 17,000 miles an hour. The gallery is packed with artifacts and space exhibits.

Button: push and sniff to smell the moon.

I also got the chance to sniff the moon. It’s hard to describe other than sulfurous, but I don’t think there will be any moon-scented room fresheners on sale any time soon!

Artemis Exhibit

This new, permanent exhibit is an introduction to NASA’s program to send humans back to the moon for the first time since the space race in the 60s. It offers a good history for adults and a lot of interactive activities for children.

Space Center Theatre

Photo of living in space with bags of space food.

The Space Center Theatre has a fascinating list of presentations and movies. I watched the New Perspectives presentation about living on the International Space Station. From the icky-looking items they call food to the all-important matter of how to go to the bathroom in a space where gravity doesn’t exit (think: a vacuum cleaning kind of device) and how pee is recycled into drinking water (yuck), it was a fascinating addition to my visit. Films are shown at the Destiny Theatre and the newer 4K Space Center Theatre. Check the daily program when you arrive.

Eat Space food

Astronaut Ice Cream Sandwich.

I couldn’t resist – I had to try the space food. So, I bought a bag of Astronaut Ice Cream Sandwich and when I popped the utterly dry, over-sweetened, cardboard-textured “ice cream” into my mouth, I almost cried. If my dreams of going to space are going to be realized, they are going to have to work on the food!

If you don’t fancy space food, visit the Food Lab, a marketplace with lots of eateries from pizza to Tex Mex, BBQ, and a deli. (Trying space food reminded me of that time I tried fake blue crystal sweets on a Breaking Bad Tour in Albuquerque).

How to Visit

Here are a few extra details to help you plan your trip. (You might like my related guides: How to Visit The Statue of Liberty & Inside the Statue of Liberty Crown – Is it Worth It?)

Tickets

Adult tickets cost $29.95 or $34.95 if you buy them in person on the day.

You can buy tickets directly from Space Center Houston. Don’t forget to add Mission Control Tour if you want to see behind-the-scenes at NASA. You can’t upgrade on the day. There are various extra packages including breakfast with an astronaut and VIP access if you want to explore more fully.

Address and Parking

If you’re driving or taking an Uber, the address is 1601 E NASA Parkway, Houston, TX 77058. There is plenty of parking. The cost is $10 (plus a booking fee) paid by phone / QR code. If you’re an international visitor, you can pay at the Guest Service Desk. Got an EV like me? There are EV charging ports.

Visiting without a car

If you don’t have a car in Houston (I didn’t), you can take a tour with Houston City Tours that includes a sightseeing trip around Houston, then drop-off and pick-up at Space Center. The ticket price includes your admission fee and tram tour to Mission Control.

Opening hours

Space Center Houston is typically open from 10 am to 5 pm, and 10 am to 6 pm during the peak summer months and on Saturdays. It’s open most holidays except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Check the website for special events happening over solar events like eclipses.

How long do you need?

You can easily spend a full day at the center. However, if you only have half a day, I’d recommend focusing on the Tram Tour to Mission Control, Starship Gallery, and Independence Plaza.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.

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