Space Center Houston

Top choice museum in Clear Lake & Around

Image by Stephen Saks Getty Images

Dream of a moon landing? You can hardly get closer than at the official visitor center and theme park–esque museum next to NASA's Johnson Space Center. The 90-minute tram tour of the center itself includes the historic Mission Control (you know, the ‘Houston’ as in the Apollo 13 transmission, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’).

While manned US space missions such as the Apollo and shuttle programs had their high-profile launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the planning, control and most of the training happens here. When the Johnson Space Center first opened after the initial Mercury missions in 1963, it helped put Houston on the map. Today it's one of the state's biggest tourist attractions.

Interactive exhibits let you try your hand at picking up an object in space, landing a space shuttle, and experiencing 3Gs in a gyroscope. Be sure to enter and watch the short theater films, because you exit past exhibits. For a more in-depth experience, reserve ahead for a Level 9 Tour (twice daily Monday to Friday, $130), a four- to five-hour behind-the-scenes tour of Nasa.

It should be noted that the entire facility has a slightly forlorn air. With US space policy adrift and no manned missions since the shuttle was retired in 2011, it's hard to escape a sense that Space Center Houston is a graveyard of ambition. Outside, one of the 747s used to transport the shuttles between missions is on display, along with a replica of a shuttle on top.

The gift shop is heavy on t-shirts with a surprising dearth of books on the space program.