Houston, the 4th largest city in the US (by population), is my next destination. Only New York, LA and Chicago have more people. Houston also happens to be home to two points of interest that are pretty high on my personal list of places to visit. The first POI is probably at the top of a lot of peoples “must see” list: the Houston Space Center.
The other POI is the San Jacinto monument and the USS Texas (BB-35). The San Jacinto monument commemorates the decisive battle of the Texas revolutionary war. General Houston launched a surprise attack on the Mexican army and routed them. Nearly 1,300 Mexican’s were killed or captured, compared to 9 dead and 30 wounded in the Texan army.
Most of you are probably wondering why the San Jacinto monument is even on my list of places to visit. Well, I’ll tell you. When I was serving in the US Navy, I was stationed on board the USS San Jacinto (CG-56). During my tenure on board, we visited Houston twice. Both times we cruised by the USS Texas on our way up the Buffalo Bayou river into Houston. I may not be rendering honors to the old battlewagon as I float by on an Aegis cruiser, but I still wanted to visit her and see how she was holding up.
Houston Space Center
For some reason, even though I have been to Houston twice before, I have never visited the Houston Space Center. I’m glad I was able to check it off of my list, but I was a little underwhelmed. First, it’s expensive. General admission for adults is a nickel shy of $30. Kid’s are $24.95. If you opt for the audio tour, that’s another $6, each. That means a family of 4 will spend a minimum of $110 just to walk in the front door. Also, it is geared more towards young kids, middle school aged and younger.
As an engineer and a something of a space nerd, I had been hoping for exhibits that covered the more technical aspects of space travel. In addition I had expected a bit more history. There was a little bit of history, but by in large, the center focused on technologies that are currently in development and how they will be applied in the future of space flight. The obvious goal of the center is to get kids excited about STEM subjects. Definitely a worthwhile goal, with out a doubt.
The Houston Space Center is right next door to the Johnson Space Center. There is a train available that will shuttle people from the HSC to the JSC. The train is included in the price of admission, which is nice. Visitors have a choice of two trains, Red or Blue. I took the blue train, which took me to Historic Mission Control then Rocket Park.
Historic Mission Control is more along the lines of what I was looking for. This is the oldest mission control at JSC and the one that was used to control Apollo 11. It’s called “Historic” Mission Control because it is actually designated as a US historic site. It is also the oldest mission control at JSC. All of the equipment in Mission Control is the original hardware. Even the seats in the observation area are the original seats, down to the ash trays mounted on their backs. I could have easily spent an hour or more in the observation area checking out each station. But alas, after a short presentation by a NASA PR guy, we were shuffled off to our next stop.
The second stop on the train tour is Rocket Park. No raccoons or trash pandas to be found. There were rockets and rocket engines though. One of those rockets happens to be one of the last remaining Saturn V’s. The first and third stages of this particular Saturn V come from the canceled Apollo 18. The second stage was a backup for NASA’s Skylab. It was not needed, so it is now on display. I don’t know what happened to the Apollo 18 second stage.
Numbers don’t do this massive machine justice, but here are some anyway: Fully assembled, a Saturn V stands 363 feet tall (taller than a 36 story skyscraper) and weighs in at a staggering 6.54 million pounds! It’s first stage F-1 engines could generate nearly 7.9 million pounds of thrust. Seeing one of the surviving 3 rockets in person was pretty cool.
I probably spent more time checking out the Saturn V than I did all the exhibits in the HSC combined.
USS Texas (BB-35)
When you think about it, it’s amazing how much the addition of airplanes to naval warfare changed the architecture of warships. Up until the Battle of the Coral Sea in WWII, in order for ships to hurt each other they had to be able to see each other. As a result, the navies of the world were in an arms race to build bigger, tougher battleships with bigger guns. The Iowa class battleships built by the US during WWII were the ultimate evolution of this concept.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first time in history where two navies clashed and the ships never saw each other. The battle was fought entirely with carrier based aircraft. This sounded the death knell for battleships such as the USS Texas. The range of these mighty warships was only as far as the eye could see. If you can’t target your opponent, the number of guns you’ve got becomes pointless.
After WWII Admirals and naval architects world wide realized the aircraft carrier was the new face of power at sea and that big guns would be relegated to ship defense and shore bombardment.
Today’s warships are missile boats. The USS San Jacinto, for example, carries 2 5″ deck guns and 120 missiles, compared to the USS Texas’s 10 14″ guns and 21 5″ guns along with an assortment of smaller guns.
Construction on the USS Texas was started in 1911, and she was commissioned in 1914. During her 34 years on active duty, she put those huge 14″ guns to good use many times. She served as the US Flagship on numerous occasions and also supported the Allied landings at Normandy on D-Day June 6th, 1944.
In 1948 she was decommissioned and towed from Baltimore to her new home at the San Jacinto State Park in Texas. At over a century old, she is the oldest US battleship in existence. Time has not been kind to her though. She is currently going through major renovations just to keep her afloat. Sometime next year she will be towed to a dry dock so that repairs to her hull can be done. Hopefully she will be able to remain afloat for another century.
Up next: The Big Easy!
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