Travel review: Space exploration proves a blast in historic Houston
Lindsay Sutton blasts off to Houston to explore the city’s rich history at the heart of man’s exploration of space – and much more besides in the biggest city in huge state of Texas.
It is quite eerie sitting in NASA’s Space Control HQ, and hearing those chilling historic words: “Houston, we have a problem.” That was putting it mildly. The ‘problem’ on board the Apollo 13 mission to the moon was a matter of life and death. Unless it was fixed, against the odds, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise would die, way out in space. Thankfully, human ingenuity saved the day. Their oxygen supply was restored; the moon landing aborted; make-do-and-mend solutions restored enough heat and water for the astronauts to survive; and after a loop round the moon, Apollo 13 was able to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean back home.
It leaves the observer sweating as you re-live the whole experience at the world-famous NASA Visitor Centre just outside the Texas city of Houston. But no tourist’s re-entry into the world of space exploration is complete without the experience. Back in April, 1970, the world held its breath, and you will today. It’s human endeavour and drama, up there with the best. From David Bowie’s ‘Ground Control to Major Tom,’ to Elon Musk’s current Space X programme, and Jeff Bezoz’s Blue Origin projects, the quest for space travel never goes away. The current preoccupation is to get another woman and a person of colour into space, with a longer-term focus on exploring ‘Deep Space’ and a notion of colonising Mars. The one constant is the huge cost, and the debate goes on about the use of finite resources and the validity of ‘vanity projects.’Even so, Space Centre Houston on NASA Parkway is fascinating. There are 400 artefacts on display, from space suits to rockets and even a mock-up international space station. It’s hard to take in that this year sees the 50th anniversary of Skylab, America’s first space station, which paved the way for the International Space Station. It’s heartening that cooperation goes on in space, despite the divisions down on earth.
More conventionally, Houston has more down-to-earth offerings to intrigue and delight. With a direct flight from Manchester, on board one of Singapore Airlines’ swish Airbus planes, it’s perfectly possible to take it all in. And without any hint of a ‘problem.’
We stayed at the four-star Hilton Americas Hotel, right in the heart of Downtown. It has everything - spa, infinity pool, hot tub and fitness centre. And it’s less than half an hour from the George Bush International Airport, named after the Old Man, not ‘W.’
For further information about what to do in the area, visit www.visithouston.com
We flew Singapore Airlines
If you are flying from Manchester Airport, Vacation Care Parking is available as an option. Visit vacationcareparking.com or telephone 07464 448279 or 0161 437 8988.
So what does Houston have on the deck? ‘A heck of a lot,’ is the answer. From a truly inspiring Museum of Natural Science, with its real-size dinosaurs and terra dactyls, to art museums and exhibitions that throw in a Monet here, a Rembrandt there, and the odd Picasso across the room. Between the Museum of Fine Arts and the Menil Collection, there’s more art on display than you can shake a stick at. The scope and range is truly amazing. But then again, the wealth generated from ’black gold and Texas tea’ - traditional terms for oil and gas - is legendary. Eat your heart out, J R Ewing.
But things are changing, and fast. Solar panels stretch out for miles on the vast, surrounding plains, generating more electricity than the old traditional sources. Texas never stands still, and you feel the energy in Houston, which is America’s fourth biggest city and the most ethnically diverse. Climate wise, Houston can be hot and sticky, but there are solutions. Deep underneath the city is a 7.5-mile warren of walkways and tunnels with air conditioning to keep you cool. For the visitor, there are shops and restaurants down below.
For retail therapy, there’s the vast air conditioned Galleria Mall, with its 400 up-market shops, ice skating arena, and its wide range of restaurants and cafes. Little surprise that the glass-roofed centre has a huge international trade, with Latin America and Europe right up there. Then there’s the old postal sorting office, now called POST. It acts as a hub for tech firms, food, retail, concerts and events. Its open rooftop has both an organic farm and a sky lawn covering much of its 5.5 acres, with views over the city. Now, traditional Texas is BBQ country, and there’s nowhere finer than The Pit Room, where ‘the best brisket and the best ribs are served ‘with smoke and love.’ That’s the script.
Then there is the fascinating Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, a now defunct underground reservoir that used to supply much of Houston’s drinking water. It’s fascinating and atmospheric. The vast chamber holds 15 million gallons, and you can go right round the beautifully-lit reservoir on a walkway, watching the reflections of the supporting pillars. It’s quite an amazing experience, and most unexpected.
The city’s Museum of Natural Science is something else. It’s the third most visited museum in the USA and takes you through 100,000 years, dealing with the transition of life from sea to land. It deals with ‘The Great Dying,’ when 97 per cent of species were eliminated. Yet, you learn that as recently as 1804, President Thomas Jefferson told his cross-America explorers Lewis and Clark: “Find me a live mastodon.”
Finally, I didn’t think I would like visiting a zoo, even though Houston has one of the top-rated ones in the USA. However, I did enjoy the visual, and the thoughtful, experience. There’s a touch of clever marketing in the zoo’s motto ‘See them, save them,’ but the zoo clearly aims to live up its motto.
There is a nice feel to the spacious walkways, lined with high trees to keep both you and the 6,000 animals in the shade. The enclosures are spacious, and the animals free to roam. The zoo’s latest exhibition focuses on the Galapagos Islands, and offers ‘a totally immersive experience,’ as you walk through a see-through sided underwater tunnel. You do get a feel for the archipelago’s unique landscapes and its wildlife habitats, with frolicking sea lions, Humboldt penguins and sharks, and giant tortoises in a nearby enclosure. The clear emphasis is on how to protect the Galapagos for the future.
The elephants and their young seemed content, and the shriek of monkeys and orangutans was all too evident as they swung in the canopy. It’s all a long way from the day the zoo opened in the 1920s, starting out with a single bison called Earl.