It is T minus eight months or so and counting until the biggest launch at the Johnson Space Center since Apollo 10 sent men to the moon. But this mission will never leave the ground. Its purpose is to bring the experience of manned space exploration to the earthbound masses, and the vehicle is Space Center Houston, the fifty-acre, $70 million visitors’ complex under construction west of the main gates of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Johnson Space Center. Scheduled to open this fall, this new breed of tourist attraction combines the allure of space travel with the talent of Walt Disney Imagineering, the designers behind the Disney theme parks in Florida, California, France, and Japan. “The only thing we won’t be able to do,” enthuses Hal Stall, the man who guided the mission from conception to reality, “is create weightlessness.”
But instead of a fantasyland overrun with little cartoon characters and otherwise normal people wearing mouse ears, Space Center Houston will be more along the lines of Florida’s Epcot Center. “We wanted a reality-based experience,” explains Stall, the Johnson Space Center’s director of public affairs who also serves as the president of the nonprofit Manned Flight Space Education Foundation, which will operate the attraction at no expense to the government.
The message—“Space is the Place”—will be conveyed by a variety of attractions, including two films. One, To Be an Astronaut, will be shown on a five-story-tall screen. The other, the 70mm On Human Destiny, explores the more contemplative aspects of space travel. Also featured will be full-scale mock-ups of space vehicles, 24 hands-on training simulators, and up-to-the-minute live-camera eavesdropping on Mission Control, the launchpad in Florida, and crews in orbit.
The chance to touch a moon rock and talk to real astronauts and engineers could be the perfect antidote to the negative public relations that has weighed down the space program since the Challenger disaster in 1986. Stall wants to improve the public’s image of the people who work at NASA. “I want kids to experience that engineers are not just guys who wear white socks and pocket protectors with thirty-seven pens,” says Stall. “They’re not nerds. They’re the real creators of our culture. Kids need to see all the things that engineering and technology can do.”
Stall also sees Space Center Houston as a way of building support for the space program. The visitors, who will pay less than $9 a ticket, are also taxpayers. “We need to give them a window on what we’re doing,” says Stall. “Then they can make up their own minds whether their money is being spent wisely.”
The Johnson Space Center already ranks as Texas’ second most popular attraction after the Alamo, drawing almost a million people a year to take free self-guided tours of the sprawling grounds and check out the exhibits in the makeshift museum in the halls outside the main auditorium. Considering the dearth of signs and billboards directing tourists to the facility and the absence of a promotional budget, one million people is a remarkable figure. Today just finding the place requires some effort, and there are few highlights other than Rocket Park and the thirty-minute tour of Mission Control.
In fact, a minor side benefit of Space Center Houston will be to alleviate visitor overcrowding on the Johnson Space Center grounds. “The way it’s set up now is a love-hate relationship,” Stall explains. “We’re excited to have people come and see us and look over our shoulders. But if I don’t get to the cafeteria before noon, I’ll be in line behind four hundred schoolchildren. If I move my car during the morning, an RV will inevitably be in my parking space.”
Factor in the new attractions—and Disney’s astute marketing skills—and Space Center Houston’s projection of two million visitors a year seems conservative. Why, there will even be directional signs from Interstate 45.