Friday, June 3, 2011
By Leslie Howard
I love going to conferences, not only for learning and networking, but because I get to travel and experience new places and new museums. The American Association of Museum’s Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas last week did not disappoint. I signed up for the “Onsite Insight” of Space Center Houston. Growing up in New Hampshire, I always felt connected to Christa McAuliffe (even though I was too young to actually remember the tragedy) and Alan Shepard, because they were both from the Granite State. I felt that if I went all the way to Houston, then I had to see it.
I was filled with anticipation on the bus ride to the Space Center. When we arrived, we were quickly escorted to the theater to watch the opening film. As we entered, the first thing I noticed was a podium with a Presidential seal. It was roped off so no one could get too close. Why a random podium without any signage? Strange. After the inspirational film “On Human Destiny,” our guide casually mentioned that the podium was used by President John F. Kennedy during his speech at nearby Rice University on September 12, 1962. Of course! How could I forget? As a former docent at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, I had parts of that speech practically memorized as it played continuously in the galleries. In this speech, Kennedy said, "We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Suddenly I loved that the Space Center has this podium.
As we were led through the galleries, we saw artifacts and mission patches, including the checklist that the Apollo 13 astronauts would have used if it weren’t for a certain problem. We saw large moon rocks and were allowed to touch one. We also walked through one of the training modules, and got a peek at Robonaut. For these experiences alone, Space Center Houston is incredible. However, the Level 9 tour is where it’s at.
This Level 9 tour is a special tour of the NASA facility, just a short tram ride away. We received VIP passes and were escorted to Mission Control. The public can go on this tour, if arranged in advanced, but because you enter the NASA facility, the tour’s length and route is determined by what is happening at NASA that day. Being “museum people,” we were allowed into historic Mission Control (which is directly above the current Mission Control), even though the Endeavour shuttle mission was underway during our visit. We promised to be very quiet and respectful. We rode up in a tiny elevator and walked down a narrow hallway. Very unceremoniously, our guide opened a door.
And there it was. Historic Mission Control. This is the room where they watched Alan Shepard become the first American in space, the moon landing, the Apollo 13 astronauts struggle to get home safely, and the Challenger disaster. We were allowed to sit in the flight director’s chair and view the room and screens as Gene Kranz saw them. (Kranz was Flight Director from 1960 to 1994; you may also know him as Ed Harris’s colorful vest-wearing character in the movie, Apollo 13.) I had chills. Being in historic places like that always gives me chills. It happened here. Above the water bubbler, there was a small mirror mounted on a plaque. This mirror was given to Mission Control from Aquarius LM-7 (the Lunar Module that would have landed on the moon during the Apollo 13 mission) in order to “reflect the image” of the people there who “got us back.” Every time someone went for a drink of water, they looked in that mirror, and remembered their mission. Chills, right?
I didn’t want to leave, but knew I had to. In the tram ride back, I checked my twitter feed to see what the rest of the #aam2011 folks were up to. The Kennedy Library in Boston tweeted, “Newly released WH recording of JFK discussing challenges of getting a man to the moon declassified today.” On May 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress. What a coincidence! On May 25, 2011, I toured historic Mission Control where they watched a man land on the moon in fulfillment of President Kennedy’s goals. Wow. The podium, touching the moon, Mission Control, the mirror, Kennedy’s speech fifty years ago to the day, and just one floor down from where I was, Mission Control was managing Endeavour. How far we’ve come. Incredible.
While the Mission Control used in Apollo 13 was modeled exactly after the one I stood in (and it did look just like in the movie), this wasn’t a movie set. It all happened there. Going to Space Center Houston reminded me of our jobs as museum professionals to provide these experiences for others. Historic Mission control might be just another room to the NASA folks, but for me, it was an unforgettable space infused with the magic of Space.