Travels for Two in a Green Ford Escort #7: Houston, We Have Apathy

Houston, We Have Apathy

It took us almost a week to decompress after our experience of working through Mardi Gras. Most of that time we spent in Beaumont, Texas. Why Beaumont? We had a friend – Joe Wilson there, along with his Jack Russell Terrier Marvin, who were kind enough to provide us a place to stay and some slightly calmer company. After too many restaurant meals and lazy days we decided that it was time to leave again and headed west on Highway 10.

Our first detour was just south of Houston as we headed towards NASA country and the Johnson Space Center. This is the heart of the Space Program with Mission Control, astronaut training facilities and a plethora of research buildings. If anywhere is, the JSC should be the embodiment of our hopes for space exploration and scientific advancement. We went hoping to see what the future held for our country and the possibilities of Space. Instead we found a dated and slightly depressing tourist trap that Larry Hagman’s Major Nelson would have been right at home in.

Even the uniforms of the tour guides and service personal looked as if they were overstock from a 70’s TV sitcom wardrobe and the computers we saw for the training center were antiques – old reel to reel tape machines that were looked like set props from the original Star Trek. Although we were sure that there were modern computers in the background, the most advanced computer we saw was the one they used for a mock landing trainer for the tourists. That was a computer manufactured over five years ago by a small computer supply company that Jeff used to work for before we left on our trip.

Another disturbing thing was the over-the-top sponsorship and corporate feel of the whole space center. Each little tourist section had been paid for and logo’d by a different corporate sponsor – Chevron for the tour trams, Seiko for the cafeteria, AAA for the theater, and so on. If so many companies were paying for the tourist setup – why was it so cheap and meaningless? We found the corporate logos and company art were often the most advanced and most interesting feature of each setup.

The tram tour was especially frustrating. We were not allowed to stop at their rocket park, where old space capsules and rockets were available for up-close examination. As a concession though, they did slow down to let us snap some pictures. Both of the training facilities we stopped at were empty – I guess understandable for the weekend, but I had hoped that people working towards a dream would be willing to put in more than 9-5 Monday through Friday. In addition, much of the tram tour focused on the food center – which we didn’t stop at, where scientists figure out how to turn regular groceries and shopping lists into items and meals that will fit and work in space. I’m guessing a grocery chain sponsors that section.

While at the space center, we also heard about the International Space Station – the largest space construction effort of our time. The U.S. is currently working in partnership with 7 other countries and international space agencies and it is a huge effort that will hopefully remind the world that our greatest frontier is still waiting to be explored. Unfortunately, the only the indications of that on our tour were a few plywood and cardboard mockups and a nice hanging plaster model in one of the training centers. If mission training takes years on full sized and working mockups, we still have a long way to go before we get back out into space.

More effort at JSC seemed to go into the kitschy children’s play park and large tourist cafeteria that took up the largest portion of the tourist information center. It is obviously very important that we are able to get our 42 oz. Drink special in an alien or astronaut shaped plastic cup. And everyone knows that it wouldn’t have felt like a space center experience without “Space Dots” – small round circles of frozen sugar that were supposed the future of ice cream.

The Johnson Space Center was a huge disappointment for us. It was also, seemingly, a huge morass of apathy for those working there. We admit it was neat to wander through a life-size mockup of the Space Shuttle and to see live video feed from Mission Control. It was also great to see examples of the rockets that had originally blasted Americans into Space back in the sixties and seventies. But that sense of exploration and excitement was sadly lacking about current and future missions. The next mission scheduled was a necessary repair and upgrade of the Hubble telescope that had been in training and development for over three years. We couldn’t help but wonder why it took three years of training to fix problems that could possibly have been avoided the first time we sent the satellite telescope up.

We had come to the Johnson Space Center to see what the future held for us in this time of promise and technology. We had hoped to see a thriving and exciting facility dedicated to pushing back the frontiers still left to us and in trying to take one more step for all Mankind. Instead we got to see a 70’s sit-com come to life filled with apathy and corporate sponsorship. I hold out hope that behind the scenes and in the huge concrete and gravel plastered office building that dotted the landscape of JSC our future is being designed, tested and trained for. Either that or that Jeannie is ready to nod her head and magically make it all better.

We left the Space Center after only a couple of hours, glad to be on the road and heading towards San Antonio. Maybe some day we will go back to visit, but we doubt it – it isn’t pleasant to pay for disappointment.