Sunday, August 24, 2008

Houston? We Have A Problem...

If you want to get out of Houston (and believe me, this morning we were MOTIVATED) you have a couple of options. You can either take a really expensive bus tour to NASA…or you get on a city bus, take a fifty minute ride and get there for about a buck and a half each way.

We opted for the bus. We nearly always opt for the bus. Yup. It’s a whole lot less expensive. But it’s also a great way to see the “real” city. When we get there we aren’t tied to some tour director’s schedule. (Sheree and I are nearly always the last ones back on the bus since we are taking pictures and chatting to people and stuff. We have survived many a steely gaze from tour guides.)

When we go on our own, we can take our time and take as many pictures as we want.

I remember reading about the “Number One Way To Annoy Your Traveling Companion When You Go To NASA." You are supposed to get yourself lost and keep repeating the phrase “Houston…we have a problem” until your pal punches you.

Still there’s no ignoring the fact that this is where history was made. It’s incredible that a bunch of people decided their goal was going to be to put a man on the moon and they did. They were using computers with a tiny fraction of the power in this Dell laptop I am writing on right now. They communicated with vacuum tubes and did many of their calculations on slide rules.

And they put a guy on the moon.


NASA is well aware of its historical significance. Everywhere there’s John Williams-like music playing. It’s stately and full of self-importance. At first, it’s pretty cool. After a few hours it gets annoying. After a few more hours you are inwardly wondering what would happen if you crept into the control room and switched the John Williams stuff for Bavaria Bob’s Oompah Band.

There’s a tram available to take you around "private" NASA places. You go through a security check that makes no sense at all. Here’s why: you remove your belt, empty your change and make sure there’s no metal anywhere. In order to do this, you need to put your backpack on a table. No one looks at this. No one opens it. No one looks inside it.

Once I passed through the metal detector, the round bored looking security guard handed me my bulging backpack and pointed the way to the tram upon which I would shortly be heading for the very heart of NASA. The fact that there could be twenty pounds of explosives and ten semi-automatic weapons in that backpack instead of camera equipment apparently never enters anyone’s mind.

Ah well.

The tour is interesting. We get to see the places where they try to make astronauts in training puke (otherwise known as a 'mission simulation') and we see real rockets and pictures of endless astronauts. There is a point in the tour where the bus stops in front of a pretty ordinary looking clearing with a few benches surrounded by trees. They guide explains that this place is a monument to people who died while in the space program. There are a lot of trees and for once John Williams is taking a break and the silence actually feels much more reverent to me. Say what ou want, but these people believed in something and they died for it.

We see genuinely historic places. Here is the room they used when the first man on the moon. It was RIGHT here that they ran the mission from. It feels like something out of the sixties: old furniture, all light orange. A bland room is in front of us behind a big glass wall. There's a bright red phone that probably connects to Someone Really Important. It is full of old looking computer equipment. When you look at the equipment you can almost imagine tapes spinning on reels.

As the presenter ensures we are absolutlely positively "no doubt about it" aware of the history that was made here, I stand at the back of the room. I become aware of a rough texture under my fingers. It's that wallpapery crap they used to put on walls. And great strips have been torn off.

My wife is a believer in the "Super Conscious." That is the notion that ideas occur to multiple people at the same time. I realize with a start that hundreds of tourists have stood here and torn little pieces of wallpaper off so they can take a bit of Mission Control with them.

I look around me. The security cameras are facing other directions. The guide is looking the other way. I tear a tiny scrap of wallpaper crap off as I look intently at the guide, nodding attentively. I have someone in mind who will be really excited to have this.

NASA makes for a great three hour visit, we decide as we wait for the 24whatever under one hundred and ten degree heat.

When we get back to the hotel, the news is full of dire warnings from New Orleans about Gustav. We get a message that our Amtrak train has been cancelled. We have two options: stay in Houston or rent a car and drive to San Antonio.

We leave tomorrow morning.

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