Happy Trails

In a year in which the sports gods smiled on Texas, Houston found itself the biggest beneficiary of their affections. First came the Super Bowl last February, the largest—and what turned out to be the most revealing—party in all of professional sports. Then came Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game in July, a serendipitous showcase for the once-retired hometown boy Roger Clemens. And finally in December, for semi–sports junkies like myself, the Bayou City had potentially, by sheer fortune of timely scheduling, readied itself for yet another nod in the annals of sports history.

Having thrown 44 touchdowns in twelve games, the Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning was on a furious pace to shatter Dan Marino’s single-season TD record of 48, with several pundits predicting that Marino (the former Dolphins QB has gone where all good, modern-day quarterbacks go to retire—a broadcasting chair at a major network) would see the record fall the Sunday the Colts faced the Texans. Such was the impetus for my trip to Houston.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a dutiful girl who spends many a Sunday watching the boys in both Dallas and Houston, but at some point a few years back I became a Colts fan, in large part because of the fun I found in watching Manning. And when the Colts crushed the Texans 49–14 in Indy back in mid-November, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be fun to see them play in person next time they’re in Houston?” Lo and behold, they were going to be in Houston just four weeks later (okay, so maybe I’m not the most loyal Colts fan; if that were the case, I’d probably have had the schedule memorized).

What happened in the intervening weeks got me even more excited about the game—Manning threw more than a dozen’s worth of TDs, thereby inching even closer to the record—and helped me rally a handful of friends to tag along. Knowing how I felt for Sunday’s festivity, I decided Saturday’s plan needed to inspire the same. When a visit to Space Center Houston dawned on me, giddiness followed.

It’s amazing to me that after a mere four hours at the Johnson Space Center’s visitors center, a girl who’s spent all of her life nurturing her inclination for the verbal would seriously regret having not pursued science and mathematics. If time travel were indeed an option, this gal would hop right back to her early years, throw herself into anything aeronautic, and beg her parents for the money to go to space camp.

Aside from the educational aspects of the SCH (videos, exhibits, centrifuge rides, and the like), my favorite part of touring the center was taking the tram onto the actual grounds of the Johnson Space Center. Some 1,600 acres in all, the JSC is dotted with more than one hundred non-descript buildings (it’s ironic how unremarkable the buildings look from the outside, considering what truly remarkable things must be taking place inside), three of which we toured. Among the highlights was a glimpse at one of the former homes of mission control (a clear sign that I’m not ready to switch careers: the 87 stairs I hiked up to this destination left me winded). Our knowledgeable tour guide and equally knowledgeable tram driver had lots of tidbits to share: mission-control workers would send messages to each other via tube chutes like those you find at a bank’s drive-through; the sixties-era consoles have less technological oomph than a modern-day TI-83 graphing calculator; former presidents and dignitaries sat in the same seats as we were presently sitting in; and thanks to the inquisitiveness of one touring youngster, a trip to the moon takes almost four days. We also got to see the Saturn V rocket, the building that houses moon rocks, and the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, a playground of sorts for astronauts and engineers who, in some instances, spend upwards of one hundred hours training for future missions.

Another perk of visiting Space Center Houston: You can entertain your friends with the fun facts you learn, as I did the next day when we drove from the downtown hotel where I stayed to Reliant Stadium for the game. For instance, when we passed the Rice University campus, I authoritatively said, “Rice donated the land that the Space Center was built on.” Oohs and aahs could be heard all around.

Sunny and seventy degrees, game day was gorgeous. The only blip that deflated us was the heavy traffic we found ourselves clogged in as we tried to make our way to the glimmering stadium; had we been smarter, we would have parked and ridden the light rail. Once inside, we found ourselves some hot dogs and sodas and then settled into our in-the-next-county seats. But thankfully, they were in-the-next-county seats with a decent in-the-end-zone view. Manning notched two TDs in the first quarter but was pretty quiet from then on out (if you count nearly 300 yards passing pretty quiet). He didn’t get his record-breaking five and Houston didn’t work its way into another sports-history footnote, but I walked away from the whole weekend with a new mission: starting football on Mars.

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