When it comes to space technology, Houston, Texas, might as well be the world capital.
Best of all, the city is only three-and-a-half hours’ drive from Dallas or two-and-a-half from San Antonio. Here’s how to take in three uniquely Houstonian experiences in a one spacey day.
Step 1: Visit Space Centre Houston
A 30-minute drive from Downtown is the unmissable Space Centre Houston. The NASA Johnson Space Centre, which has been mission control for more than 50 years of human spaceflight, is next door, though it’s not open to the public — that’s what the space centre is for.
Arrive at 10am to avoid the queue for the popular tram tours. If you decide to skip the tram, your highlight reel should start with the short film Human Destiny, which is on a loop in the central cinema. (Sit in the front row to avoid fidgety school kids.) The footage of NASA’s Apollo missions is a good primer for the 400 exhibits ahead of you.
Head to the astronaut gallery to see the actual space suit Pete Conrad – the third man to walk on the moon – wore in 1969. “The powder-like substance on the legs,” the exhibit boasts, “is fine moon dust Conrad kicked up trudging along the arid lunar surface.”
Next, in Starship Gallery, see earth’s largest display of moon rocks. One, called the lunar touchstone, you can even, well, touch. It was collected on the Sea of Serenity by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972. Half the joy of coming here is marvelling at informative tidbits like these.
See the Mars display next and learn about NASA’s goal to reach the red planet via the Orion Program by 2023. You can experience a virtual Martian sunset and explore a simulated Orion capsule.
Another incredible artefact is the Skylab training module, which was designed to test ways to live in space over a long period time. The actual Skylab space station broke apart on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1979 (as planned) though some parts survived, like a beam that washed ashore in Esperance, Western Australia.
Well, that’s NASA’s version. According to ABC News, Skylab’s arrival caused a sonic boom in the small town and scattered debris across the Nullarbor. Later, the Shire of Esperance fined the USA $400 for littering!
Head outside to Independence Plaza to explore the shuttle replica Independence, which is still mounted on the original carrier aircraft. It’s a wacky and wonderful sight. On the top floor, enter the flight deck for a selfie in front of a replica (but very real-looking) astronaut.
Finally, drive five minutes to Rocket Park, where a massive Saturn V rocket lies on its side in a shed. It’s a jaw-dropping walk from the mighty jet engines at one end to the comparatively tiny space capsule at the other.
Space Centre tickets are between $38 (USD $29) and $47 ($36 USD), though a Houston City Pass will get you a 50 per cent discount. Skip the centre’s cafe and eat at Luka’s BBQ and Steakhouse at 17052 Saturn Lane instead.
Step 2: Fly! Be Free!
The attendant straps you in, fits the VR mask and off you fly through a virtual city. To enter other scenes, you must fly into the side of a building that’s sparkling. I tried, but veered at the last minute (and maybe screamed a little).
The best part is that game moves with you – tilt down in the “sky” and your body tilts down, too – so your heart rate rises and you feel pressure in your chest similar to that you feel on a roller coaster. The VR mask blocks sound as well as sight, immersing you further.
Ensure you listen closely to the attendant’s instructions on the controls. The game is $13 (USD $10) for just two minutes, so you’ll want to enjoy every second.
The Museum is open from 9am to 5pm daily at 5555 Hermann Park Drive.
Step 3: Unwind With A Virtual Reality Spa
“Your mind may have wandered,” a woman says. “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal.” The woman isn’t real. She’s the wondrously soothing voice that accompanies the VR part of the Natura Bisse Mindful Touch facial at Houston’s Trellis Spa.
The Mediterranean-style spa is part of the stately Houstonian Hotel, former home of President George W. Bush, and is located in a woodsy park in Houston’s Galleria shopping district (home to Texas’ biggest mall).
Wrapped in the fluffiest of robes, a fragrant heat pack was laid around my shoulders and I was escorted to a deep reclining chair. There, I sipped on water flavoured with flowers and fruit, nibbled buttery shortbread, and flipped through an illustrated book on the Texan wilderness.
My treatment was on a warm bed, contoured to my body. The VR mask was strapped to my face and that extraordinary voice began. It was like she knew what I was thinking before I thought it. The visuals made me aware of my breath, my heart-beat and being present in the moment. During the actual facial, I drifted in and out of sleep.
Afterwards, I was ushered to the Tranquillity Room with cuddly-soft chaise lounges, a flickering faux-fireplace, and the sound of gentle rain. “You can rest here,” staff said.
The Mindful Touch Virtual Reality facial is $312 (USD $240) for 80 minutes. That includes locker access, afternoon tea, a float pool and access to showers, lotions and potions. Lots of men attend the spa, too.