Houston, Texas, USA (7th May 2008)
Ok so you can forget anything we have said so far about horrendous travelling days and the worst flight ever because our trip from Miami to Houston now takes both of those titles. After getting less than two hours sleep thanks to getting back from Disney late we were up again at five to get to the airport for six. Luckily we still had the car do we didn't have to worry about public transport or paying for a taxi; we simply drove it to the airport rental office and then got a shuttle to the terminal. Checking in and security were all routine and pretty painless, it was only when we got onto the plane that the fun really began. At first we were really happy as it wasn't a full flight so we got a row of seats each to sprawl out on but then e got told we would be a little bit delayed as there was an electric problem with the plane. Two hours later we were still on the plane, falling in and out of sleep, when an announcement was made that it had been decided that the flight was cancelled. We then had two options, either wait till four to get a direct flight or fly via Dallas at one but without our luggage. We decided on the direct flight and with our $20 food voucher in hand we dragged ourselves to the seating area, gutted that we could have still been in bed instead of trying to kill six hours in an airport where there wasn't a whole lot to do. Time somehow passed, we had something to eat, went on the internet, slept a little bit and then it was time to get on the plane, this time there wasn't a free seat at all so we were well and truly squashed in like cattle; a far cry from the comfort of the morning flight. The journey was long, uncomfortable and finished off with a rough landing and as if that wasn't enough we then had a two hour journey on two buses just to get to the hostel. Around 8pm, ten hours later than planned we found ourselves outside our hostel and could have cried we were so happy to have finally gotten there, despite the state of the place!
Houston International Hostel wasn't really what you might expect a hostel to be...it was more like a tatty, run-down house that hadn't been modernised since it was built it seemed. Anyway we were welcomed in by a lady who didn't really seem to be expecting us despite us having booked beds for the both of us and so it took a few minutes for her to work out where to put us for the night. Finally we were shown to a room with two of the oldest sets of bunk beds we have ever seen and told that this was just temporary and that we would be moved in the morning. We were both starving so after seeing that there was a Wendy's not far away we went out for a walk. The girl at the counter must have found our accents hilarious because when we ordered for the first time she just stared at us and laughed, then when Mark repeated himself she really couldn't understand him and so Kara tried for the third time speaking very slowly and we eventually got our much needed food.
Our first full day in Houston was a very uneventful one. We went to the supermarket and were amazed by how cheap everything was, so much so that it made the whole shopping experience a lot more fun than usual. When we got back to the hostel we were confronted by the hostel owner and told it was time for us to change rooms and to our surprise we were split up and put in separate male and female dorms, apparently us being in the same room last night was an exception to the rule. The heat in Houston really got to us so instead of going out to explore and die in the heat we opted to stay in the hostel and relax for the rest of the day.
For some reason we were woken up the next day just before ten and were told that dorm rooms had to be vacated and that they weren't to be used until five in the afternoon. Thinking there must be something going on we didn't think too much of it until we saw a sign saying that was one of the hostel rules; that it was like that every day! Not wanting to get in any ones bad books we got ourselves up and ready and headed over to Herrman Park, in particular to the Miller Outdoor Theatre. Kara had read that they gave out free tickets at eleven thirty to performance in the evening, in this instance it was Madame Butterfly performed by the Houston Ballet so we lined up to get ourselves tickets. Again the heat was too much for us (92F = 33.3C) after standing in line so we sneaked back into the hostel and spent the afternoon there.
For tea we decided to do something different and packed up a picnic, well some sandwiches, crisps and fruit and went to the park a couple of hours before the ballet was due to start. We found a nice spot beneath a tree in the shade as the sun was still unbearable even though it was beginning to set. We had a really nice time away from the hustle and bustle of city life people watching, chatting and eating and pretty soon it was time to get seated for the ballet. It was our first experience of a ballet and if it hadn't have been for the Synopsis in the programme we wouldn't have had a clue what was going on as neither of us were familiar with the story. The dancing was beautiful as were the costumes and sets but it was the orchestra that really stood out and made the ballet what it was.
We had heard something about an Arts Car Parade in downtown Houston that is held annually so again we got ourselves up early and made our way down to see what it was all about. Not really knowing what to expect we soon learnt that the parade is the first and largest Art Car Parade in the world and features a display of all types of rolling art, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and even roller-skaters that are decorated in various themes. It turned out that the actual parade didn't start until one in the afternoon but we got the best deal because we got to see all the cars up close and even talk to some of the owners about their own cars and experiences they have had in different parades all across the country. It was unbelievable not only seeing all the differently decorated cars but also seeing the lengths and extremes that the car owners had gone to to make their cars truly one of a kind. The photos show a few of them but they by no means do the parade justice, we saw a car with a full sized model of a bull on the roof, a car covered in singing and dancing lobsters and Big Mouth Billy Bass's, cars shaped like dogs and swamp monsters and even a dentist themed vehicle that was covered in false teeth, toothpaste and toothbrushes...the list really is endless and some of the designs have to be seen to be believed. There are also classic cars and low riders in the parade and one that really stood out for us was a beautifully crafted car made only out of wood; compared to some of the other cars this one was a real masterpiece. By the time we had seen all 250 cars the midday sun was out and the humidity was unbelievable so yet again we went and took refuge in the hostel!
It was back at the hostel that we got talking to two guys from England. After a couple of hours chatting they had both convinced us to go with them to see an MLS game (football match). We caught a cab down to the stadium which is on the University campus where to our surprise we were greeted by a sea of orange shirts. As soon as the cab stopped we made a mad dash for the ticket office just in case they sold out of tickets. Despite the high profile of the Houston Dynamo's (MLS 06-07 league champions) the stadium was only half full, about 10,000 and we didn't have a problem getting good seats. We thought the turnout was pretty good considering that the football standard by any measure was to put it simply, absolutely shocking, school ground, Sunday league wannabe standard and they have at least four other major sports that have millions more fans, primarily the MLB (Baseball), NBA (Basketball) and NFL (American Football) and the NHL (Ice Hockey).
One of the reasons that the MLS seems to now be working and getting a bit more interest is that it attracts people from all kinds of backgrounds and the fans can afford to come, paying from as little as $15 a ticket. The Dynamos seem to pull in a good mix, they have the proper football hardcore's who love the sport the people who grew up watching the game in places like Mexico, and South America; there are people who aren't football fans but enjoy sports which is clear to see by all the basketball, baseball and NFL shirts and there is a decent percentage that comes because it is a fun scene, those who come for the opportunity to drink, swear and sing songs that they would probably never sing elsewhere.
We got tickets that put us at the bottom of the second level right on the centre line but we soon realised that this was the family stand and that if we wanted to have any atmosphere we would need to move behind the goal on the south end where all the Mexicans were. The match we had come to see was the Houston Dynamos (bottom of the league) Vs Colorado Rapids (top of the league) and we were hoping for a 6 or more goal thriller... The first half however was terrible, a lot of hit and hope kicks of the ball with some very amateur brutal looking tackles. The Dynamo's did manage to pull a goal out from somewhere and went in at half time leading 1 - 0 but they left us at half time asking "Does MLS stand for Major Low-Grade Soccer?"
At half time we decided to move over to the other stand where all the other fans were and it proved to be a good decision even though Kara was weary at first she soon got into the swing of things, singing the chants and dancing to the drummer and trumpet players. Football wise the football was still pretty bad but the goal just before half time had made both teams try a bit harder and shortly after kick off the other team scored, not that we noticed as there were no away fans to cheer for them and we were too lost in the atmosphere partying. The game started to get better now that both teams were level and had something to fight for, and with only a few minutes to go the Dynamo's got a penalty but only after the ref changed his mind on a hand ball decision when the fans booed him and gave him some stick. The penalty was struck well and put Houston back in front and that is how the match ended, 2 - 1, their first win of the season after 7 games. The crowd went wild after the penalty went in and 20 minutes after the game, when we were leaving the stadium with a reduced for a quick sale pizza, they were still at it, chanting playing the drums and banging on the side of the stand.
We decided to walk home, which turned out to be a bad idea, and after 20minutes or so of being lost we had to call a cab to come search for us. Back at the hostel we all of a sudden became really tired, no doubt as a result of singing and dancing for 45 minutes, so made our way up stairs into our separate rooms for the night.
It was another early morning start for us but rather than getting up and ready to go out today we were getting settled in front of the computer to see who win the premier league as the title race had come down to the last game of the season, would it be Chelsea or Man United. 90 minutes later and Mark just wished he had stayed in bed as Man United went on to clinch the title after Chelsea could only manage a draw with Bolton. Kara revelled in the fact that United won and rang her sister Sian so they could both gloat for a while and rub it in.
Later in the day Rob and Luke, the English guys we went to the football match with asked us if we had any plans for the evening and as usual we didn't so they invited us on a night out with them down to the university area for "Happy Hour Sunday". Around eight we left the hostel and made our way to the university, in particular an Irish Bar Luke had heard about that was especially cheap. We weren't disappointed as a pint of beer set us back a mere $1.75, bargain, but then what we saved on the beer we ended up putting into the pool table as we managed to pass an hour or two seeing who could beat who with Mark eventually being crowned champion, something that pleased him immensely! After using all our change up on the pool table we began to make our way home but got sidetracked by another bar and another kind of happy hour. We chatted to the bouncer for a while who did the best Scottish accent we have ever heard and when we eventually got in the bar we were happy to see that a pitcher of beer was only $4 and these pitchers actually held four full pints, bonus! The bar never really seemed to get that busy but we didn't really notice as somehow we managed to keep getting free drinks, first off the bouncer came to see us and told us the round was on him and then after Luke requested some music the DJ came over and we got a free shooter each. At some point after this we must have decided to call it a night and rather than try and negotiate the streets and metro system we all just jumped in a taxi that took us door to door so we could get ourselves to bed.
Our main and really only thing of importance to do whilst we were in Houston was to visit the Lyndon B Johnson NASA Space Center. The guy who worked on the reception desk at the hostel had told us a couple of days before that if we went down to the local supermarket we might be able to get some buy one get one free vouchers for our trip, but as is our luck, they didn't have any, they did however have an offer on which made tickets $12.95 instead of $20, so it was worth the walk down to check.
When the 7am alarm went off it was all too early for some of us (Mark) and the effects of the night before were there in full force but that all had to be put aside as it was launch day, the day we blast off to the Space Center. After a train ride followed by a bus and over an hour and a half travelling we made it, a full 29 miles to the bay area on the south side of Houston which is the home to NASA.
The Johnson Space Center is mission control for all American Space Shuttle missions, activities aboard the International Space Station, and is the training facility for all American astronauts. No rockets or space shuttles take off from Houston (that happens in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center) and they do have a reason for that; the control facility in Houston is separated from the launch facilities in the event that a disaster occurs (rocket explosion or something) to ensure that you don't lose both facilities.
The Space Center lobby is filled with simulators, theatre screens showing films, space suits and various equipment which has been used since the space race began. Along with all the memorabilia, photos and TV screens they have a huge replica Space Shuttle nose with a mock cockpit which you can go mess around in and as if that wasn't enough things to cram into a lobby they also had a rocket engine on display! We were totally in awe of the whole thing and walked around opened mouthed or smiling like a Cheshire cat with excitement, we both had forgotten just how much we were interested and baffled by space exploration.
We all decided that before we embarked on our mission to explore the Space Center we needed to eat as we had missed breakfast and luckily for us they had the cheesily named "Zero G-Diner". Sadly they didn't offer any kind of astronaut food which would have been amazing so we instead had to settle for chicken nuggets and chips. We were quite glad to have ventured into the diner as up on the walls they had huge replicas of the badges for each crew that has travelled into space. Some of the designs are really colourful and intricate and each one is designed by the crew members themselves so it tells a personal and unique story, along with the crew's names and mission. After our brief lunch is was time to get on with things and start seeing the center after all we had been waiting all weekend to be here.
Our journey into space began with the film "On Human Destiny" in the Destiny Theater, in which they have the very stand where John F. Kennedy promised the safe launching to the Moon, landing on the surface, and return to Earth before the year of 1970. The movie was only about 10 minutes long and we didn't quite understand its relevance, it just was random space stuff crop and pasted together in a video, but it got us going and wanting to see more.
From the cinema we exited into a museum kind of area that had various bits and bobs for previous missions and it was here that we saw the mock up Space Station, which showed everything from their rooms, to the different nations sections to the shuttle/taxi pod which takes the astronauts from their rockets to the Space Station and so on, a lot of it was made more interesting as we had just been shown it in the movie and you now could really get a feel for it and imagine what it must be like in a Space Shuttle or up in the International Space Station.
The main thing to do at the Space Center is the tram tour which takes you around the grounds of the Space Center and luckily we managed to get in the queue just before a massive group of kids that were on a school trip did. The first stop was at what is now known as historic mission control (building 30) which was the actual one used for Apollo 13. It was so weird sitting in the viewing room where the Queen and Prince Phillip had sat as well as a host of US Presidents and knowing it had all happened there; this control room is where they spoke to Neil Armstrong in July 1969 as he became the first man on the moon and where the famous "Houston, we have a problem" came through from Apollo 13. The control room itself is just like what is portrayed in the movies, a massive room with giant TV screens at the front and rows of desks filled with old school green screen PC's where the crew communicate with the astronauts; one thing that we couldn't believe is that all the computers in that room had less power than a standard laptop today. We got given a talk by a guy who worked here back in the 60's and 70's and he told us some stories about the advances in technology and so on and how things are different to how they used to be, it was really interesting. One really interesting thing he told us about was that on the wall in this mission control there is a framed piece of a mirror which was presented to them by the crew of Apollo 13 which was hung above the drinking fountain so they would see a reflection of themselves each time they drank and know they saved the crew's lives, it was a very deep, thrilling and emotional (we have been far too in touch with our inner geek).
As our group was leaving building 30 the guide motioned up to a flag atop the building and said, "Whenever an American is in space, the American flag flies on that pole. As there is an American at the International Space Station, the flag is flying at this point"; looking up to the flag pole and past it someone noticed off to the right that the moon was rising in the blue sky over the building; there it was, NASA's next destination, the moon, just above the horizon, so close and yet actually 380,000 kilometres away. Houston is right there, at the edge of space.
Back on the tram and we moved on to the training Center which is where, surprise surprise, astronauts train. In the building they have a few rockets and rocket engines from past programs like Saturn and Apollo which they can practice doing procedures on. The training area was interesting, as it included full size training models of the shuttle and International Space station, a couple of shuttle flight simulators and two models of the Canadarm, the robotic arm which they use to build things in space.
The next and final stop on the tram tour was the newly opened (July 2007) Saturn V Complex. Inside the huge warehouse that our tram parked outside of is a fully restored and the last remaining 363 foot Saturn V rocket which displays all of the workings and equipment that was once capable of launching astronauts to the Moon. As mentioned this is a new exhibit at the Space Center and opened on the 20th of July 2007 to commemorate the 38th anniversary of the first footprints on the Moon. It is truly an amazing sight and to be stood face to face with something that is so big and monumental is really inspiring. We walked around the whole thing and soaked up everything that is written on the plaques around it and just enjoyed the experience of being there. The few minutes we were allocated there went too fast and before we knew it we were being called to get back on the tram and head back to the main visitor center.
Back in the visitor center we still had plenty to do before going home... First up was the Space Shuttle simulator that involved landing a Shuttle just like they did on Krypton Factor; Mark managed to get the best score of the day on his machine whilst Kara had a little worse luck and nosedived short of the runway killing everyone. Next was the IMAX theatre where we watched a history of NASA from the first space flight to landing on the moon to the Challenger Disaster to the current day. After the movie we thought we would be exiting back into the lobby but we got taken into another room where we had a guy up on stage who told us all about the current NASA and what is going on. This is where we learned about how in addition to controlling missions and training astronauts, the Johnson Space Center is also home to the development programs for the next generation of space travel, which includes new space craft, a lunar base and a trip to Mars; it was a real bonus.
The last thing we did before catching the bus home was watch the "The Living in Space" presentation in which we got shown a concept module of the next generation Space Center (life size). A Mission Briefing Officer gives a live presentation on how astronauts live in a space environment and explains how even the simplest things can be made hard in space if they are not done right, like how showering, eating and going to the toilet are complicated by the micro gravity environment and how the astronauts have come up with ideas to make things easier, such as the sleeping bags which they have to strap into on a night and the Hoover style toilet which we are sure you can imagine how they use!
Once we had seen all the exhibits we thought we might as well check out the gift shop and we couldn't believe how much stuff they have and how through some tedious link they can make it space related, most of it was junk and the prices were literally out of this world! By the time we were ready to leave it was getting on for five and we couldn't believe how long we had been there, as the old saying goes, time flies when you're having fun, and we really did, it is something we would recommend to anyone in the area, the only downer is that it's going to take something really special for us not to compare any other space / aviation museum to this one.