I challenge anyone to visit the Space Centre in Houston, Texas and not feel totally in awe of man's ingenuity in exploring space. My expectations were far exceeded by the fantastic combination of film footage from previous missions, rockets and space capsules on display, as well as presentations about current space station activities.
Seeing the actual Apollo missions control room was amazing, especially when you have just been watching footage from a past mission showing the reaction of the controllers after a successful launch.
Setting the tone for the day, outside the Space Centre building is NASA's historic modified jumbo jet, the original Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, which was used to ferry retired space shuttles to their various museum homes. On top, it carries a full-size mock-up of the shuttle, giving an idea of the immense size of both planes and the engineering expertise required to transport the shuttles.
Inside the Space Centre there is plenty to keep children interested, with interactive games and learning stations, simulators and educational demonstrations. You can also look inside the flight deck of a full-scale replica of a space shuttle.
Man's continuing endeavours in space really come alive in the five short films and presentations scheduled at intervals throughout the day in the various theatres. We watched 'Human Destiny' which shows remastered archival film footage of NASA's missions to the moon.
One of the most memorable pieces of footage is the actual moment in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz joint American and Russian test project when the hatch is opened between the two spacecrafts and the Russian cosmonaut shakes hands with the American astronaut he has been training with for the previous 12 months.
Talking to us afterwards, our guide said that the cosmonaut actually came straight through and hugged his American counterpart. However, the Russians weren't happy with this all too human reaction as they thought it looked as though the cosmonaut wanted to defect to America. Therefore, they insisted that the original footage be cut out and instead the moment was recaptured in neutral territory and with a handshake only.
In the Starship Gallery after the film, we were able to see such artifacts as the Apollo 17 Command Module with its extremely cramped conditions, and to walk inside a full-size Skylab training module. There were also many samples of moon rock collected by astronauts during the moon landings.
We took a tram ride into the grounds of the nearby Johnson Space Centre, which is NASA's operational centre for human spaceflight training, research, and flight control. As our guide said, "this is not a theme park--this is the real thing.' We saw inside the mission control room, which was used between 1965 and 1992 for 41 missions, including many space shuttle missions. The current mission control room is located one floor below.
A gigantic warehouse in the grounds houses the Saturn 5 rocket, an immense three-stage launch rocket. This was developed to support the Apollo programme to the moon and was later used to launch Skylab, the first American space station.
Back in the Space Centre, we listened to a presentation about the International Space Station, which currently orbits the earth 16 times a day, 250 miles up in space, manned by three to six astronauts. It was fascinating to learn about their programme of experiments, which include a twins study and the effects of microgravity on the human body. In another film we learned about the development of the Orion crew carrier and plans for further exploration on Mars.
Spending a whole day at Houston Space Centre is not an option, it is a must. To maintain your energy levels throughout the day, there is a cafeteria selling hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches and hot and cold drinks.
The Space Centre is about 25 miles north east of Houston off Interstate 45.