Not long after we decided to route through Galveston, I added the Johnson Space Center to our to-do list. Around the same time, I happened to see this post by fellow RVer Brandon over at Drive, Dive, Devour.  In it, he describes the behind-the-scenes/VIP tour he took at the JSC in 2015. The tour is called “The Level 9 Tour” and, put simply, it looked awesome.

When I went to buy our tickets though, I slammed on the brakes. The already very high price Brandon paid two years ago, $89 per person, had now increased to a whopping $135 per person. Holy crap!

BUT, since we were going to be in Galveston for Kevin’s birthday and Kevin loves this stuff and I love this stuff and Brandon’s write-up was just so cool, we decided to bite the bullet and buy tickets.

A Mercury era spacesuit
A Mercury era spacesuit

Unfortunately, when all was said and done, we didn’t think the tour was worth the price we paid. While what we saw was interesting, NASA has changed the experience in significant ways since Brandon visited in 2015 and we did not feel it lived up to our expectations. We realized we could have gotten a very similar experience by taking the regular ($30 per person) “tram tour” that most JSC visitors take.

The Level 9 tour promises a real “behind the scenes” view of day-to-day operations at NASA. The tour is limited to just 12 people, lasts between 4 and 5 hours, and must be reserved well in advance. In contrast, the regular tram tour has 30-40 guests and takes about 90 minutes. The expectation is that the limited number of people on the Level 9 tour will allow for a more in-depth experience and the opportunity to see places the general public doesn’t get to see.

The biggest complaint we had was our tour guide did not have the experience we expected him to have. On other tours we’ve had guides who were intimately familiar with the subject matter at hand, people who’d spent their lives or careers developing extensive knowledge about the place or thing we were learning about. In contrast, our Level 9 guide started the tour by introducing himself, saying he’d never worked for NASA, and then saying he’s not “a facts and numbers guy.” His plan was to take us on “a romantic tour of the history of NASA.”  HUH?  It’s freaken NASA!  We want facts and numbers!

We later realized NASA trains volunteers to give these tours, so our guide’s knowledge was limited to what NASA had told him to tell us, or what he had read on his own. In practice, that meant he would relay whatever information he’d been given about a particular object or facility, but he was unable to answer any questions. Don’t get me wrong, the information he had was interesting, but there were just obvious limitations in his knowledge base.

Collage of astronaut photos, a spacesuit, and equipment from Apollo 13, viewed during the Level 9 Tour
During the course of the day, we went to two buildings that were not included on the tram tour. The first one contained some interesting artifacts. Clockwise: 1) Every astronaut who has flown to space has a plaque on the wall commemorating his or her mission; 2) A selection of spacesuits from every major era; 3) When things went badly on Apollo 13, engineers had to figure out how to make these two components, made by different manufacturers, work together.

In the meantime, instead of being able to slowly wander around and figure out what we were looking at (by reading the numerous information panels in and around the facilities), he’d hurriedly rush from one “known” thing to the next, allowing little time for us to fill in the gaps or appreciate what we were looking at.

Our tour started with a look at the Saturn V rocket. The rocket, which is absolutely spectacular, is one of three remaining rockets from the Apollo era.  It was supposed to blast off for the moon in the early 70’s, but before it could be launched, the program was killed off. Other surviving Saturn V rockets are located in Huntsville, Alabama, and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The rocket is approximately the length of a football field. It is massive.

The Saturn V Rocket

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The thing about the Saturn V rocket is it’s actually owned by the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, as opposed to the rest of Johnson Space Center which is supported by a separate funding source. So, the rocket is actually located in a park separate from the rest of the JSC and it can be visited by anyone at any time for zero dollars (because the entire Smithsonian is free). There are detailed information panels on the walls of the building that tell visitors everything they need to know about the rocket. Yet, as part of this obscenely high priced tour, we spent over an hour listening to our guide tell stories about the Saturn V era (because he was really comfortable with that subject having grown up watching the Space Race unfold on TV). Later on though, when it came to present day NASA projects, he rushed by or just ignored numerous items.

A large vacuum chamber
The other building that was not included on the tram tour housed several types of vacuum chambers used for testing gear and materials.

Additionally, some of the things Brandon was able to see and do in 2015 were no longer permitted. For example, he got to see the Neutral Buoyancy Lab – the massive pool NASA uses to train astronauts to work in a weightless environment. The pool contains full sized versions of some of the equipment currently floating in space that they train on. And back in the good old days, if you were there on the right day, you might actually get to see astronauts training in the pool. Awesome.

There was no pool on our tour. It wasn’t even mentioned.

Further, while we were able to see the historic Mission Control room where all those Apollo flights were handled, when Brandon visited, he and his fellow guests were permitted to get up close to the desks to look at all the gauges, dials, and controls at the various stations.  Hell, Brandon has a picture of himself sitting AT the Flight Director’s console.

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A desk in the Apollo era Mission Control Room at Johnson Space Center

Interestingly, in his 2015 article, he noted his fear that some day NASA would stop allowing people to get that close. Well. Guess what? The whole room is now roped off. Our guide told us it was because NASA was planning on restoring the room, but my guess is some idiot tourist messed with the buttons, so NASA just decided to rope everything off. All of which is understandable, but it didn’t make it any less disappointing for us.  We were getting half the experience for almost twice the price.

By way of comparison, the regular ($30) tram tour allows visitors to see the same historic Mission Control room from the original visitors’ area at the back of the room. So Level 9 gets you a view from the front and sides of the room while the tram tour gets you a view from the back of the room.

The historic Mission Control Room at Johnson Space Center
$30 gets you behind the glass. $135 gets you behind the yellow tape… Pretty much the same thing.

The one REALLY cool thing we got to do was meet a current flight controller for the International Space Station. He met with our tour group to explain what goes on in Mission Control on a daily basis and he answered numerous questions. HE was what we expected to be dealing with all day – someone who knows this stuff backwards and forwards, can answer all kinds of questions, and can make complicated concepts accessible to visitors. We could have talked to that guy all day. He was fascinating.

We also got to see present day Mission Control in action, and what we saw there was incredibly cool. Being “Flight Director” means you are officially the “big cheese” in the room. The “head honcho.” The “boss man.” The Flight Director is completely responsible for the 100 billion dollar ISS and the lives of all astronauts on-board.  No one does anything without getting the “OK” of the Flight Director. To put it simply, the Flight Director is THE MAN!!!!

Ya know who the flight director is in this picture?

Mission Control at Johnson Space Center

The woman in the green jacket.

That’s right.  Everyone say it with me: “YOU GO, GIRRRRRLLLLLLLL!!!!!!”

Look at her!  All smart and math-y!!!  Not to mention she looks like she’s 30. That’s right. I might have set an actual record for “lowest achievement on a math SAT,” but there are women out there ROCKING the STEM stuff and showing the boys how it’s done! YESSSS!!!!!

So, not to belabor the point, but just to be clear….

Female flight director at Mission Control at Johnson Space Center

Many males who are not the flight director at Mission Control.

#girlpower

Anywhooooooo, our visit to present day Mission Control was fantastic and a definite highlight of the entire day (and, by the way, you can also see it on the tram tour, though you don’t get the Q&A session with the flight controller).

We also saw some cool stuff in the massive mock-up building which is where NASA’s current robotic and other projects are built and tested.

A rover of the future in Building 9 at Johnson Space Center

A rover of the future in Building 9 at Johnson Space Center
Rovers of the future….

 

Collage of models in Building 9 at Johnson Space Center
I wish I could tell you more about these items, but our guide whisked us right by them….

We also got to see a version of the New Orion capsule, which is what they expect to launch in the next couple years to replace the space shuttle program (it’s gonna sit on top of a rocket that looks like the old Saturn V).

Orion capsule mockup
Orion – the next big thing….

 

Model of future rocket carrying Orion capsule
The future of NASA….

The regular tram tour also visited this building, though their view was from a raised catwalk instead of from the floor itself.

Hey, ya know all those movies where scientists develop an amazing robot that has artificial intelligence, and then the robot starts thinking on its own, and then tries to kill everyone and take over the world?

I don’t know where Hollywood writers get these ideas.  Do you?

Robonaut model
“Look at me! I don’t look threatening at all!! I’m just a friendly “Robonaut”!!

 

Robonaut model
“Just kidding. I don’t even have a face because I have no soul. And now I’m going to blow all your shit up and kill you.”

 

Centaur-like Robonaut model
“I am a weird Robotic Centaur or something. My intentions are good. I come in peace.” Translation: “You should probably go call Will Smith or something…”

All in all, while we liked what we saw, we felt very let down by the tour given how much we paid. While a 4.5 hour tour sounds like a lengthy one, by the time we spent over an hour at the Saturn V rocket, and then almost an hour at lunch (which is included on the tour), we only had about 2.5 hours to see everything else. This meant we were constantly being rushed from one thing to another, with little time to read the information panels on the walls or just step back and observe. And for the objects our guide could explain in depth, we often had to choose between listening to his commentary or taking photos, since he rarely gave us time to do both. In the end, it felt like we saw a little of everything, but a lot of nothing (other than the Saturn V).

Comparing our experience to Brandon’s, it seems while the original version, at the original price, may have been worth it, NASA quickly realized they could charge more for less and has now turned it into something of a money making venture. This impression was really driven home when, at the beginning of this “very exclusive VIP” tour we were told NASA “required” us to take a photo – which ended up being one of those annoying amusement park green screen photos that they try to sell back to you at the end of the tour… “Here’s Laura and Kevin floating in space!! That’ll be $25, please…” Ummmm yeah. No.

The bottom line is if NASA wants to charge a premium price, they should provide a premium product – one in which guests don’t leave with unanswered questions and one which is qualitatively different than the much lower priced alternative. In the meantime, if you’re heading to the Johnson Space Center, do yourself a favor and just do the tram tour.  You might even have some leftover cash to buy a photo of yourself standing on the moon!!!!

34 COMMENTS

  1. REALLY good info., thanks for sharing your experience. We love behind-the-scenes and factory tours. I think the price alone would have deterred us from this one, but now I have categorical reasons to pass on the extended tour.

    • Yeah, we’ve usually had great experiences as well. This was the first one that was a big disappointment. Though, I’m sure the excessive cost made it sting all the more. Oh well. Live and learn and pass it on, I guess….

  2. Bummer on the value for price. A lot of the items look very similar to the Kennedy space center in FL. There was an option there for a guided tour around that same length for $150, I think. We skipped that and did our own thing – and while it still wasn’t cheap, we did get a full day out of it and could stay as long as we liked in the different areas.

    • Yeah, it definitely reminded me of Kennedy and we loved our visit there. We learned a ton and it was just a fun experience. It’s frustrating because this tour really could have been such a great experience, but it completely missed the mark. There’s nothing worse to me than being rushed around. I will spend hours at a museum and read everything I can if I’m given the opportunity. To be at Johnson Space Center and not be given the time to read or understand all these things we saw was just a waste to me.

  3. Your photos are great. I would have asked for a refund. Did they have one of those “comment cards” for you to fill out at the end of the tour?

    • I didn’t see any… they were too busy trying to get us to buy photos to ask what we thought 🙂 I think the best thing would be for us to write up a (much shorter) review on tripadvisor. It would probably make more of a difference, anyway. If they see some people expressing that they’re not happy with the price given the experience, maybe they’ll change it.

  4. Jen and I loved our trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida because everyone we met that worked in the exhibit areas was truly knowledgeable. They answered questions and gave true insight. We didn’t spend the money you did per person but we felt that we definitely got our money’s worth of space information and education. When you spend the kind of money you both did you expect to be led around by the best of the best, not the second runner up in the science fair. ????

    • Exactly…. I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought had they not raised the price so dramatically. It’s the “value for the money” issue that left the bad taste. And it’s just weird because there have got to be THOUSANDS of former NASA employees in the Houston area. I just can’t believe there aren’t more experiences folks around to give these tours.

    • Thanks for stopping by. And yeah, it was disappointing for sure, but I’d still go check out the facility if you’re in the neighborhood. Just do the regular tour.

  5. So let’s see if I understand what you were trying to say … the women in the green jacket is the Flight Boss? ???? It’s too bad that your tour wasn’t what you had expected, especially for the money you paid. I feel bad because I feel like I had a great, entertaining tour reading you blog and that was free!

    • Was I clear enough?? I really wasn’t sure… Maybe I should use more arrows???? Fireworks???? Confetti???? 🙂 Anyway, I’m glad you liked the mini tour. Sometimes I feel like our life is a bit of a cautionary tale for others. I’m glad to see someone get some enjoyment out of our minor disasters. 🙂

      • Ohhh Fireworks and Confetti, yes she definitely deserves those as well ???? I’m glad you look at the fun side of disappointments, I think it makes life more enjoyable in the long run … especially for your readers!

  6. Random trivia: Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa is married to a former Fish associate. I did moot court against him in law school, we went to dinner after, I sat next to his 30-ish wife and asked her what she did, she said “I’m an astronaut/mission specialist,” I mentally though “yeah, right” but my mouth said better things, and she gave me a couple mission patches which I still have. So the ultimate boss of the “boss” in your photos is a woman married to a patent attorney who was your husband’s co-worker.

    • That is definitely cool small world stuff! And more importantly, that means even more women are in charge at NASA, which makes me very happy!! To be honest, I was more shocked by how young the flight director looked than anything, which sounds similar to your story. Though really, looking around the room, the average age overall was probably mid 40’s (which, given my current age, is INCREDIBLY young, as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

  7. Definitely good to hear the cons of the tour. Since we didn’t make it last year, we were thinking of doing the VIP next year but I think we’ll have to pass and just do the regular tour.

    I’m with you on the woman director. Goooo!!

    • It’s unfortunate, but that’s our advice. It’s absolutely worth going for a visit, but unless they change things significantly, we’d just go with the tram tour.

  8. Side comment: In my moot court days, I sat at dinner next to the 30-ish wife of my opponent, asked her what she did, she said “astronaut/mission specialist,” I thought “yeah, right,” but I said something more appropriate, and she gave me a couple Shuttle mission patches which I still have. She is now the ultimate boss of the boss in your photos — Ellen Ochoa, who runs all of Johnson. Her husband used to be a Fish associate in our “original” Houston office, so you husband was a co-worker of the spouse of NASA’s mission control boss.

  9. You did see more than we did with the lesser priced tour but growing up in the Apollo era the Houston Center is really a cool place.
    Hats off to the woman flight director! Way to go ma’am.

    • Yeah, I definitely think it’s worth a visit, I just wouldn’t go for the very high priced tour. If it was more in the $75 range, I think it would be worth it. $135 was just crazy. Hope you guys are doing well!

  10. Your pictures are amazing, and thank you for the warning about the tour! We’d love to bring our son here, but we’ll stick with the regular tour!!

    • I’m sure your son would love the tram tour, and actually, I believe the Level 9 tour is restricted to people over the age of 12 or 14 anyway, so it’s probably not even an option yet. But in the meantime, the tram tour would be great for him!

  11. This is a really good description of your experience, and I can see why you were disappointed! We took the regular tram tour about a month ago, and your experience does look a little more in-depth, but not for the extra price! I guess I’m glad I didn’t know there was a “level 9” tour, or I probably would have been tempted by it. It’s too bad they raised the price and lowered the quality. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yeah, they really don’t seem to advertise it very much. If not for that other blogger’s article, we wouldn’t have known about it either. Though they seem to fill it up, so maybe they don’t really need to advertise all that much. In any case, we just keep coming back to the point that it’s about value. Had it been more fairly priced, we would have loved it. We just left feeling burned because it was SO expensive.

  12. What day were you there?
    I was on the tour March 10th and we had an amazing tour guide with worked on the LEM in the apollo days. Our tour started at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and we also got into the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). But we didn’t get into the building with interesting artifacts you spoke of

    • Wow! That is crazy! So it must just completely depend on the luck of the draw. You got the exact tour we were hoping for (complete with highly experienced former NASA employee tour guide) and we were left disappointed. To some degree it’s even more maddening to know that you might get a great tour, but you also might get a not-so-great tour. And you have no way of knowing without plunking A LOT of money down on the table. I understand a building might be unavailable for one reason or another, but, at these prices, in our opinion, the quality of the information being provided by the tour guide should be consistent across the board.

      Anyway, to answer your question, we were there on February 22., and the building with the cool Apollo 13 artifacts, astronaut plaques, and spacesuits was the “Crew and Thermal Systems Division” building.

      Thanks for commenting. It’s really interesting to hear another perspective on this.

      • Well, now I know that mission control was taped off for a few weeks. He made it sound like he had options of where to take us and picked places after he asked how much a space nerd we all were.
        Over the weekend I will be posting way to many photos for my Level 9.

  13. Wow – I didn’t realize they changed so much. I know when I took the tour they were mentioning restricting mission control because people kept breaking stuff or trying to take stuff. We all got to chose our seats in mission control and sat their while the guy up front told us the story of what it was like during the moon landing etc.

    Sorry you had such an experience. I agree with you on the price the original $89 was the most I have paid for any kind of tour but our guide, while note be a former nasa employee, did grow up in the area as a child during the space race and gave us real insight what it was like to live there during those times. We were allowed to linger in different areas and the Saturn V display was saved for the end as sort of a time filler if there was any time left. It’s open to the public so it wasn’t shown as part of the tour exactly.

    I don’t remember if they had the cheesy photo thing at the front or not, but I always say no when they want to take my picture anyway 🙂

    • Yeah, I can totally understand why they roped off Mission Control; I about fell over when I saw the photos of you sitting at the desks. I would never have expected them to allow that. It was just disappointing to us because we expected to get the same tour you got, and they had changed it so significantly. On the other hand, if you read the comment above yours, you’ll see some folks are still getting a pretty great tour. So it just depends. In any case, we still had a good time and it was cool to see everything. We just felt a bit burned and will definitely think twice before plunking that kind of cash on the table again for a tour. Oh well. Live and learn (and blog about it….) 🙂

    • I clicked on this link and got a start when I realized you were using the same WordPress theme we were using before we changed our website. Small world… In any case, I am very jealous that you got to see the NBL and we missed it. I would have loved to see it. It must be incredible up close. Oh well…. maybe next time… I look forward to seeing the rest of your photos!!

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