Day 10 – Houston to Lafayette
When I rebooted my phone yesterday I got a message from my mom, who hadn’t been able to reach me. I updated her on the various glass crises. “Not a great day!” she replied. I texted back, “But we’re still smiling.”
I know my last posts have been a little contemplative, but we are having so much fun.
On our original agenda we were going to spend a day in New Orleans but, worried that the trailer might get broken into, we decided to eschew that in favor of a day at the Houston Space Center. When I was a kid I wanted to go to Space Camp (didn’t we all?) and this was like getting a 5-hour version of that – as a much more appreciative adult.
Here are ten cool things about our Space Center experience (there were more!):
- It’s a small thing, but I loved getting an email in my inbox from Space Center Houston.
- One thing we’ve learned on our trip is to get up early. We arrived at the Space Center just after it opened at 9 a.m. There were maybe six cars in the parking lot. We had the place practically to ourselves. No waiting.
3. The orbiter replica on top a Boeing 747 outside in the parking lot provides a sense of scale. And it’s kind of mesmerizing.
- We tried to operate the rover and land it on Mars.
- They keep one of two unused Saturn V rockets on display in a specially built hanger – again, the sheer size was mesmerizing.
- Getting to see mission control. That was cool. They are currently gearing up for a project called Orion – with the mission of putting six astronauts on Mars between 2030-2040. Think about that. We just watched the Martian movie and it seemed so crazy – but that’s only twenty years away! In the presentation on the Mars rover we learned about the inflatable living space that the astronauts will use on the Orion mission. And we learned about the next generation space suits, which will actually click into the space craft so that the astronauts will climb out of them and into the spacecraft.
- Yes, touching a real moon rock was pretty cool. It was jet-black and smooth as if polished (perhaps from all the people who’ve also touched it?).
- We rode in a flight simulator, in which we did belly rolls and shot rockets. Super fun.
- The tram tour through the Johnson Space Center campus made it easy to imagine what it might be like to work at NASA, with bicycles scattered randomly around the buildings and parking lots. Deer mulling around like they owned the place. Our guide told us that the Space Center was specifically constructed like a college campus in order to stimulate collaboration.
- We learned lots of random things – like how in space they recycle fluids, even sweat, and filter it again for use as drinking water and for conversion into oxygen.
When I wrote a few days back about the Petrified Forest, and described how little impact park visitors had impacted the place, my friend Christine reminded me that the trace we’re leaving is in fact much more than a circle in the trunk of the tree. She lives in Alaska where they’ve watched firsthand as the glaciers recede. And there’s no need to go into all the rest of the damage we’ve done and continue to do. Hell, by the time those six astronauts get to Mars there may be no more fish in the ocean.
As we sat hearing what the rover has learned about Mars – that the planet’s atmosphere is almost all carbon dioxide, that it’s covered in red dirt not unlike parts of the Arizona desert, that there is water under that dirt making it possible that there was life there at some point – it was not hard to put an image of the earth on fast-forward and picture it transforming into Mars. After all, if the dry and barren Petrified Forest was once home to a thriving subtropical forest.
It’s a tricky dichotomy. The desire to leave a trace that we were here, that one life might have mattered, and the fact that the survival of future generations depends on our leaving as little a trace as possible. We can make as many petroglyphs as we want, but what will it matter if there’s no one there to see them?
“We are the species that explores. We built machines to explore farther, higher. Heroes flew them beyond what seemed possible. And it wasn’t enough,” narrates Patrick Stewart in the IMAX film, “Journey to Space.”
“Human space exploration helps to address fundamental questions about our place in the Universe and the history of our solar system,” NASA writes on their website. We are on a quest “to find out where we came from and who we are,” Patrick Stewart concludes, which is why the rover is named Curiosity. While I am captivated by NASA’s discoveries, a part of me also feels some sort of looming dread. Perhaps we already know what our place in the Universe has been. Perhaps in our hearts we know that we have f—-d it up. But like the empty wastelands of eastern New Mexico, we are unable and/or unwilling to stop the decline. There is no ceremony that will undo damage on this scale.
After five hours (and still we didn’t get to the tram ride that would take us through the astronaut’s training ground), we made our way reluctantly to the exit. We have to get to Florida sometime. And we had eaten only yoghurt, pickled eggs and trail mix prior to our hours spent getting as close to space exploration as you can here on earth. So after our voyage of discovery to find out who we are and where we came from, we set off on a more local expedition in search of chicken-fried steak, which we found just east of the Space Center at T-Bone Tom’s near the Kemah Boardwalk.
Though we loaded up on enough fried food to last us until New Year’s, we did enjoy our first armadillo eggs (chopped brisket in a batter-fried jalapeño) and shark’s eggs (cod, crab shrimp and mozzarella in batter-fried jalapeño). And the walk around charming Kemah afterwards, with its cute cottages, kitschy bars and shops was like a primer for life in the Florida Keys.