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.