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!
[NOTE: As of January, 2018, the price has now increased to $179 per person. For additional 2018 comments, please see the end of this article.]
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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?
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….
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.
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).
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?
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!!!!
January, 2018 Update:
Because this article has become popular on Google, I wanted to add a few words about it.
First, please read the comments at the bottom of this post. Several people, including some who work at Space Center Houston, have left comments both correcting items in my original article and lending credence to some of our complaints.
Second, please search Reddit for threads on this subject. You will find some people who had incredible experiences completely at odds with what we experienced, while others had almost the exact same experience as us (likely with the same tour guide). For example: see the last comment on this thread.
Another Redditor traveled all the way from Australia to do the tour only to not be shown the NBL OR Historic Mission Control. See here.
One of our complaints was that we spent an hour at Rocket Park at the beginning of the tour which, we felt, wasted a lot of time we could have used at the end of the tour. As you’ll see in the comments below, Brandon Hatcher, whose blog post I referenced in my original article, noted Rocket Park was saved for the end of his tour and it was basically “filler” – which is exactly what we thought it should be used as.
At the end of the day, it just comes down to which tour guide you get assigned to and what locations are available the day you visit – I believe this is why there is very little information about what to expect on the tour’s website. They do not want to create expectations.
In our view, asking someone to plunk $179 per person on the table to hope for the best is too much to ask. At these prices, no one should have to hope that their questions can be answered and no one should leave feeling disappointed. I hope anyone who does go on the tour has an incredible time. The concept is fantastic. The consistency of execution was our complaint.
Please feel free to comment below about your experiences – positive or negative. I welcome all thoughts. The more information that is available to those who find this article, the better.
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….
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.
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.
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.
Great Photos. Thanks for saving us the $135. NASA is not what it is used to be.
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.
Thanks for the review, I was really hoping to go to the. Level 9 tour after graduation, but currently (March 2019) it’s $175 per person. I’m a mechanical engineering student and rockets simply amaze me. Like you said, the tour on the website looks great but when you said that volunteers give the tour, I was so disappointed. Thanks for the tour here though! Also, being a female, it was awesome that your blog put a spotlight on the female flight director!
Thanks for your comment. I think it’s incredibly disappointing that they have made the tour cost prohibitive for so many people. It really could provide so much inspiration and information, but how many people can afford these kinds of numbers? I do think it’s worthwhile to at least do the tram tour though. You really do get to see most of the great stuff, so if you can get over there, it’s worthwhile. Best of luck with your degree!!
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!
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. 🙂
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.
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.
As always a honest and heartfelt review of your experience. To the universe and beyond!!! Thank you and safe travels.
“The universe,” huh? I need another 6 months just to see all of Texas!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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 still need to add the Mission Control photos, but here are the first three stops on our tour:
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!!
I still need to add the Mission Control photos, but here are the first three stops on our tour:
I know I am a little late to this post but I just found your blog while reading someone else’s (I’m sorry but I can’t remember which one!) That Flight Director is Mary Lawrence and she is awesome! I used to work with her sister and I got to meet Mary when she first started working at NASA. She is super smart and mathy but really cool, too! She would have made a better tour guide for you but I’m sure she’s a bit busy being the Boss and all!
Oh man, that’s so cool!! And what a small world we live in! I would love to have had a conversation with her, but yeah, she definitely seemed pretty busy the day we were there. I can’t even imagine how stressful yet rewarding her career must be. Anyway, I’m glad to hear she’s a cool person as well. That makes me want to be friends with her even more!!! 🙂
Hi, Thanks for the interesting review.
It is fair to say that with price come two days of free entrance at SCH…though I understand it is a steep price. Something else that I think is worth saying is that SCH is not run by NASA. So the comment about NASA making people pay more is inaccurate. JSC has a seat at the board on directors but, basically has little to no input with how SCH is run, and even less with regard with pricing. The inaccuracy of the regular tour guides (usually very young people) is something that got me irritated more and more over the years. I have been working on site more than ten years. I could hear them through their tour on occasions, and often times I have been about to intervene…but not willing to make a fuss, I just reported the nonsense heard, sometime damaging ( in the way they gave numbers especially with regard to cost, with no context…making people think we were wasting money) to the JSC people sitting at the board. NASA and JSC needs, indeed, a better more accurate, more engaging presentation. The coast of this tour, as the rest of the pricing policy at SCH is basically due to an historical mistake. The marketers who designed SCH grossly overestimated the number of people that would visit every year…the place have been oversized, costs a fortune in daily ops, hence the pricing…10 years ago SCH was basically own by the banks…I am pretty sure it is still the case. Yet, we need a Visitor Center, and one that is telling our story, who we are, what we do, not only based on history, but on spirit…this very “can do” spirit that is our trademark, and the envy of the world, making NASA the envy of the world. A VIP tour should emphasize all this, not giving the feeling people are short changed. The people are our best asset. I and many of other actual or former employees could give a very different experience base on their own life at NASA. Hope SCH will be more demanding in this regard, because it “represents” us in a way. I am very sorry that your tour prompt you to make comments that, even if they are needed and certainly founded, will basically be seen as NASA’s responsibility when it is not, pushing the very little portion of the population who is still interested in the Space Program to reconsider, all together coming to SCH. Writing a review on Tripadvisor might be good, but writing directly to the SCH director with copy to Ellen Ochoa would be better. Now about the pricing in itself ( out of any consideration for the quality of this Level 9 tour). Let’s be honest, $135 is indeed a fair amount of money, especially if you are two or more visiting, but considering how much money people will spend to go to some ball games ( all size and shapes of balls included) with all the side spending involved …) it is not “over the board”. Yet, it should keep its promises, be run ultra professionally, by very experienced, knowledgeable people willing to share their passion and explain why we are so lucky to have an organization called NASA. Just me…
Hi, thanks so much for your comment. It’s interesting that NASA and JSC are funded separately. I think there will always be confusion among the general public about who is in charge, but it’s good to know.
What didn’t makes sense to us is why the powers that be can’t get former NASA employees to handle these tours. When we visited the National Aviation Museum in Pensacola, there were free tours provided to anyone who was interested. Our guide was a former Navy pilot who had near encyclopedic knowledge of all the planes in that museum. It was fascinating to listen to him and we learned a ton of great information (our tour lasted about two hours). I would think there would be loads of retired NASA employees in the Houston area who could and would give these tours. I don’t expect them to know everything, but they would presumably know more than your average guy off the street, and, based on what you’re saying, probably be a lot more accurate.
I think It would definitely be worthwhile for them to revamp this tour and make it as great as it could be. There are still plenty of people, just like us, who want to learn more about NASA and given the number of hits this article has gotten on my site, it’s pretty clear that people are searching ‘Level 9 tour’ on Google quite frequently. If JSC gets it right, I have no doubt people will buy tickets, but what we experienced just wasn’t worth the price.
Late to this post as well, but I can say that the 4, yes 4 times I have taken the Level 9 tour this year, (a lot of visiting family members interested in Nasa) have all been outstanding. There is one younger gentlemen, in his late 40s and 3 others 50s and up and all were amazing. Not sure if you got a young fill in due to vacation or sickness, but qe found all our guides to be knowledgeable and very informative. Not once did they not answer our questions. I do know they are not volunteers, they are contracted through Nasa and are Space Center employees. The tour does give you a behind the scene look at Nasa, and the outside trams hold MANY more than 30 people, more like a hundred. I have taken that tour as well and it cannot hold a candle to the level 9 experience. Just my opinion.
Thanks for your comment. It really may be that we were just there on a bad day or had an off experience. Most people do seem to enjoy it and I certainly can’t speak beyond our experience. I do specifically remember two guests asking questions early on in the tour and our guide was not able to answer them. No one really asked anything else until we met the flight controller guy. Then everyone started asking tons of questions. That controller then came with us as we walked over to the historic flight control room and I walked up to him to ask a question. As he was talking, our entire group crowded around and started peppering him with questions. You could tell people had lots of questions and were happy to be able to get answers. Once we left his presence, it was back to just the tour guide telling us what he had to tell us, and that was it. Anyway, I sure hope most people going on this tour have an awesome experience. We loved the concept. We just felt the execution was off.
Hi there. I currently work part-time at SCH in tram tours. Your article and this discussion are interesting, so I would like to add my few cents and help clarify a few other things.
I can confirm some items that Mr. Coppel (above) and Aria Rios (below) mentioned. SCH is the (non-profit) official visitor center of NASA, but they are separate entities. Also each tram that takes guests on a regular tour usually have many more than 30 people (I would say averaging 80-90 people. Over 100 is not unusual). In addition to the level 9 tour being much less crowded, you avoid the occasional screaming and crying children and babies 🙂 . The level 9 tour vehicle is also much more immune to Houston’s notorious weather conditions. The trams are not covered on the sides, so guests get wet when it rains and tours get cancelled when there is lightning.
The regular tours visit the viewing rooms of the Apollo Mission Control and the Future Orion Mars Mission Control (depending on day and season). The Orion Mars Mission control room was used as mission control for the Space Shuttle missions until it was retired a few years ago. Now it is used for simulation and training. Unlike level 9, the regular tours don’t go to the current ISS Mission Control, which we only get to see through a monitor when visiting the Orion Mars Mission Control. The Orion and ISS Mission control rooms look very similar though.
You get to visit more facilities and interact with past and present NASA employees and astronauts on a level 9 tour than in the regular tours. On a regular tour, you can see the mission control viewing rooms I mentioned above, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (aka Astronaut Training Facility), Rocket Park, and on rare occasions, SAIL. Once in a while, you may catch a volunteer docent at Rocket Park who used to work for NASA or who helped develop the Saturn V Rocket F1 engines there.
I do agree that $135 is steep, but in your article, you could also mention that that price also includes, aside from the NASA tram tours, admission to the exhibits at SCH itself, which is a robust museum all to itself. You can watch live shows and movies there, get inside the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and the mockup Space Shuttle on top of it, see BOTH Apollo 11 (currently on loan) and Apollo 17 capsules on display as well as other historic spacecraft, touch a moon rock, learn about the ISS and Mars, etc.
I would like to end by mentioning that this week (Tuesday to Saturday, Dec. 30), the regular tours include trips to the NBL.
Also, nice website and back story. Leaving my email too.
Thanks for your comments and the clarifications on what I wrote. I definitely do not want to provide bad information, so it’s good to have everything here in the comments. That way, people can find all of this stuff and make their own informed decision about whether to spring for the Level 9 or stick with the tram tour.
All of this makes me think of the professional food critics who write for major newspapers. They always visit a restaurant multiple times before writing a review. That way they make sure they give the restaurant a fair shake – both for food and service – before writing their review. I wish I could do the same with this experience. I’d love to go back and do it again on a different day with a different guide and see how we felt about it. Unfortunately, that’s not possible, so all I can do is write about our experience. But I’m glad to have more information here available for people who come upon this article.
The concrete suggestions I would have would be to make sure each guide has a LOT of experience with NASA (former employees would be preferred over people who’ve never worked there), and to put Rocket Park at the end of the tour rather than the beginning – or make that part a very short part of the day. We spent nearly an hour at that facility and, while it was interesting, we could have read the stuff on the wall on our own. Because we spent so much time there, and because we had a 45 minute lunch break, the rest of the day was very compressed and felt rushed…. There were so many objects in the current projects building that we walked by and had no idea what we were looking at, and no time to even ask what they were….The tour was ending and we had to get out of that building and go back to the main museum. If I were designing the tour, I would start with the current day stuff (and give people plenty of time and information about all these cool objects scattered about) and end with Rocket Park. If time ran short, visitors could stay at Rocket Park as long as they wanted to read whatever they wanted after the tour ended. There would be no need to rush back to the main museum.
Those two things would be easy ways to improve the tour (at least, based on our experience).
Thanks again for your comments!
THANK YOU for this very thorough review and information. My husband and I booked tickets for the Level 9 tour in August but had to cancel due to Harvey. They were steep then ($129/person…eek). We re-planned a trip to Houston and I went to re-book tickets recently for the Level 9 tour and almost died when i saw the price…$189/person. ONE EIGHTY NINE PER FREAKING PERSON.
I balked when he first booked the tix at $129. $60 more, PER PERSON, in 3 months time sounds like a shameless money grab. A quick Google search shows that the price was around $89 in 2015. I get that it’s a museum that needs to support itself but this seems totally excessive. 2 years ago it was literally half this price. Not cool. I’m not seeing what they offer that warrants the $160 price difference per person from the regular tour.
By $189 I meant $179. Still just as ridiculous.
Wow! You are right… I just looked it up and it’s now $179. That is unreal. I did a double take when it went from $90 to $135. $179 is just crazy. Lately, I’ve had several people comment that made me think our experience was just an outlier and perhaps I was being a bit hard on the tour, but if they’re gonna keep jacking up the price to these astronomical levels, then they need to make sure every experience is fantastic. This just seems to confirm the last two paragraphs of my original article…
Anyway, thanks for the comment with the updated pricing. It is additional helpful information for others who come across this post. Sorry it’s been such a frustrating experience for you guys. I’m sure it’s equal parts disappointing and infuriating.
Thank you for all the information you posted here! I was planning to take the Level 9 tour but was atually wondering what it included.
Somehow I expected to have a zero gravity experience (haha), or at least to see some actual astronauts getting trained, so with this info I’ll just go for the regular admission ticket and take the tram tour to the JSC. $179 is way to overprices, I totally agree. Thanks again!!!
For a zero gravity experience I would pay a lot more than $179!!! Haha… Anyway, glad this could be of some help to you. I hate to be a downer for people looking forward to going, but I also think the information should be out there for folks to make an educated decision about whether to spend the money or not. The fact that so little information is available online is something that always bothered me about the experience. I think they should give people a realistic idea of what to expect and then actually deliver on that expectation.
NASA is JSC and is part of the US government. Space Center Houston is a 501(c)(3) and referred as The Manned Space Flight Education Foundation. SCH is the official visitor center of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The two are completely separate. JSC supports the SCH tours and tell them which buildings are available but doesn’t not dictate prices or programming. It is confusing to people because they associate both locations as the same entity.
Yeah, I agree – it is definitely confusing because most people don’t understand all the alphabet soup of the government. When people think of space exploration, they think of NASA, and they’re unlikely to draw the distinctions that should be drawn. I do think NASA has some sort of responsibility to address this though. As you said, they are supporting the SCH tours by allowing access to their property. It seems to me they should have some input into the quality of those experiences. Because, like we are all finding out, while it may not be NASA who’s running the tours, your average visitor isn’t going to draw that distinction and it is, therefore, going to reflect poorly on NASA.
I went to the Level 9 Tour on March 2, 2018 and had the same experience you (the blogger) did. I want my money’s worth! I called prior to buying the tickets and asked questions about the tour and the difference between the regular tram tours and the Level 9 tour. Did the two tours go to all the same places? No clear answer was given, but was told I MIGHT get to see astronauts training and they can’t tell me if that will be possible. At that price, how can that info not be included? Might? How can they not have a schedule or not know it 2 weeks prior the date I was to visit? And these are the people who are sending humans to space and they’re not even organized enough to have a schedule? By the end of the tour, there was no mention of the training center as you said. What a tease!
Another tease was just before we were led to the historical mission control, we were told they MIGHT let us sit in the actual historical chairs. When we entered, we saw the area blocked off with yellow tape like it was a crime scene. So how is it that the tour guide didn’t know we wouldn’t be allowed to sit in the mission control chairs and see the buttons up close BEFORE the tour started? Is this tour just meant to be one great tease for the day or what?
This is basic customer satisfaction 101. You don’t tell a customer the things they MIGHT be able to do and then don’t let them do it; that leads to expectations set higher than the actual experience which leads to disappointment and feeling short-changed. Instead refrain from telling us things they MIGHT let us do if unsure of the possibility and then IF they do let us at the end then we’ll be pleasantly surprised that our actual experience was better than our expectations and we’d so happy that we got a special access or bonus. I felt like all the lack of info about the Level 9 Tour was to get people to have to buy the ticket just to find out. At $179, they should CLEARLY state what we’re paying for.
Since $179 includes another day of general admission ticket to be used within 10 days of your Level 9 tour day (although the site indicates we must use the general ticket right the following next day and on the general admission ticket itself that we were given states that it must be used within 1 year…gosh, their info is just too unorganized because I don’t even know which of the 3 is true: next day, within 10 days or within a year???), near the end of our special guided tour I asked the tour guide something and his answer told me that every location the general tram tour goes is where we toured with the Level 9 tour so I didn’t need to do any of the general tram tours when I returned with my general admission ticket. Funny how they don’t state this clearly on their site. Basically, the Level 9 Tour visits the same places except Level 9 tour patrons get to hear long stories/explanations that take up a lot of the day’s time as this blog states and we got to see the floor level of the Robotics building where they also have some space equipment and training modules to see up close. Seeing the modules up close was the only thing that I thought made the Level 9 Tour special. The rest…I could’ve just paid $30 general admission for. The only other cool difference was we got to talk and listen to the cool stuff said at lunch at a special guest staff. Even the free lunch was bad. The info desk said we would get “served” lunch, not just given a ticket that we choose from the regular menu that everyone else eats…well, that was false. So unorganized! How do the staff not know the correct info again? Reality was you get a ticket to use in the regular cafetaria that everyone else eats in and you can eat all you want and anything you want there without limitations. That was music to my ears, but boy was that a big disappointment as well. THE FOOD REALLY SUCKS! Shrimp meat tasted like it was recooked too many times, it’s not fresh. The salad bar was very small and a limited selection. This is what the staff here have to eat everyday? I even had to report a huge roach crawling slowly across the floor, it was an old roach given how slow it crawled and how big it was. It was so slow that it gave me plenty of time to choose a snack, give my tray to the cashier, and go back to point it out to a staff.
And as you stated, our tour guide wasn’t an expert either. He got his stories and info from reading and kept informing us that he wasn’t an expert. Whenever I tried to ask him questions, I can tell each time he wasn’t excited that I wanted to ask questions even though he tells us to feel free to ask. He would just keep walking and pretend he didn’t hear me call his name and say “I have a question.” But I would continue my question anyways. I paid so I will ask! Maybe he was afraid I’d ask him something that he didn’t know the answer to which would make him look stupid? I don’t know. Overall, I felt like there was a lot of time-filler. A lot of talking or story-telling where I’m literally standing there for a whole great while just listening and wondering when he’s going to show me see something “special” that general admission people can’t see. There was so much of that, expect to stand almost the whole 5 hours. I was planning to go back the next day to use my included general admission ticket, but did not have anymore energy to do so. Neither did my partner. We’ll have to go back another day to use up our general ticket. That tour could’ve been cut down to 2-3hrs easily.
We really ought to send a link to them personally to whoever is in charge of planning these Level 9 tour and say “here, look at this blog, this is our feedback, make some changes.” We should also paste our feedback to google map reviews of the Space Center, on yelp reviews, etc. People read those reviews.
Hi, thanks for your comment. It’s interesting to continue getting mixed comments on this article and other sites on the web (Reddit has several threads filled with mixed reviews). Some people have awesome experiences and love every minute, while others leave very disappointed. I think that’s my biggest issue with the whole thing. There’s just a lack of consistency and a lack of information being put forth. $179 is a lot of money to put down when you don’t know what you’re going to get for it. I hope at some point they address this issue so that everyone gets what they expect. No one should leave an experience like this feeling disappointed. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Hopefully it will help others who are trying to decide whether to go or not.
Thank you for the article. I was thinking about it but no way at that price and I shudder to think what it might be in 2 or 3 years. A touch of background, many years ago, 1989 I think, my wife and I took the ‘Historic Tour’ at Kennedy Space Center. Us an 7 or 8 others were loaded on an OLD bus and we trekked around the backwaters of the center, saw the Apollo pads, the Gemini pads, and even the original Mercury command center. I got to sit in THE CHAIR and PUSH THE BUTTON that launched John Glenn and others. After that experience there is no way HSC could measure up. Oh and the Saturn 5 at Kennedy is suspended from the ceiling so you get to walk under it.
Wow… that is CRAZY awesome! I totally understand why they can’t do that stuff anymore, but man, to be the lucky one who was there before the powers that be realized they shouldn’t be letting tourists mess with the stuff. Ha! So cool.
I would suggest that folks call and write their Senators snd Congresspersons on what a sham the Level 9 tour is. I would think the politicians overseeing funding for NASA would be embarrassed and hopefully would take action to have a real Visitors Center created. Thank you all for taking the time to write. You have helped me tremendously. I was thinking of taking the Level 9 tour in November but now I say “no way.” None of this current information is on Trip Advisor. I urge everyone to share their story there. Thank you.
The Level 9 Tour is not run by NASA or any government entity, but by a separate non-profit organization (SCH). SCH also runs a separate tram tour, which you can take if you visit the SCH museum and educational facility.
They are not funded by NASA at all. Space Center Houston is a visitor center. JSC has no control over them. Your best bet is to complain to Space Center Houston.
We went on the Level 9 tour just over Thanksgiving. We had an INCREDIBLE tour guide. We got to go to the NBL, and to the airport hangar where they keep the astronaut’s planes. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable, and we thought it was WELL worth the money we spent. We thought it was incredible to be able to get so up close and personal with the different pieces of equipment, and I am planning a trip to take some of my STEAM students back on the tour.
Hi Nicole, thanks for your comment and I am very glad to hear you had such a fantastic experience with the tour. I hope they’ve resolved some of the issues from when we visited and I hope most people have experiences like you had rather than what we had. Thanks for your comment!
I went in August of 2015. it was $99 and we were able to sit in the legendary Mission Control. Our guide was a “professional” guide, not a retired NASA professional. Along the way we had the opportunity to m listen to a former Flight Controller, who happened to be hawking his book about his time at NASA. We were able to view the Neutral Buoyancy Lab which is offsite. We could only go through the public gallery for that – all the same it was quite impressive. For such a long tour it did feel rushed at times.
At the time the Level 9 Tour was worth it. Now, my daughter wants to do it for her HS Graduation and I’m a bit nervous that it will be an expensive disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, NASA gets a cut of this fee so I consider it almost a donation. I just want my daughter to get hooked so someone is taking HER picture and bragging about her being the Flight Director in 15 years!
Hmmmmmmm. Well, typically, I would suggest that it’s a very expensive gamble – there have been plenty of people who’ve loved it, and a few who haven’t – but it is really pricey and if you’re one of the ones who doesn’t love it, it can feel like a big letdown. BUT, if your daughter could be inspired to one day sit in that chair, I say go for it. I mean, I saw that flight director and **I** was inspired to study hard… and I scored negative points on the math SAT!! A little inspiration can go a long way and if your daughter is expressing an interest in going, I would roll those dice in a heartbeat.
I am about to fly to Houston to see a Van Gogh exhibit and I was rearranging my entire trip around the availability of the Level 9 tour. It seemed worth it, and this has changed my mind. I never comment, but I just had to share my appreciation for this information. I hate having my time wasted, and I generally prefer to experience things on my own and at my own pace, so I would hate being trapped on a bad tour for 6 hours! This way I can do the things that appeal to me. Seems like the marginal benefit of the tour for the extra cost is not worth it. You’ve really saved me a lot of trouble! Many thanks!
Hi, Thanks for your comment! I’m glad to hear this article helped you out. I think it would be a much harder decision to make if not for the very reasonably priced Tram Tour. But once you have that option on the table, it’s just really hard to justify taking a chance on the Level 9. Anyway, I hope you enjoy your trip. Thanks again for commenting!
Thanks for the information on the tour. We’re heading to Texas next month (from Australia) and are looking at doing this tour, but may end up just sticking with the Tram!
Side note, does anyone know why guests in the Level 9 tour need to be over 14 years of age?
I hope you all have a great time, no matter which tour you choose! As for the age limit, I am not positive, but I would imagine they are just worried about younger kids getting bored, acting up, or possibly touching stuff that shouldn’t be touched. Thinking back, I would guess the building that contains all the current research projects has a lot of stuff that could easily be damaged if a child banged into it or something like that. So, I assume they just wanted to make a blanket age limit to limit the chances of an incident. 14 seems pretty high for such a limit though. I would think any well behaved child over 8 or 9 would be fine.