It had been a great week at the Meraki Engineering offsite at Hyatt Lost Pines just outside of Austin, but I still had a few days before my flight back to San Francisco. I had two nights to make the most of, which was enough to do something fun – but also not enough time to do anything too adventurous.
In the end, I settled for renting another car, and driving out to see Houston, the Gulf of Mexico, and most importantly for me – the NASA Johnson Space Center! (yes, it’s spelt center). The adventure started with a long stretch of driving, trying to get to Galveston as early as possible. The week saw several short, but intense storms roll through, which made me reminisce of the afternoon storms of a summer in Brisbane. The skies remained dark on the drive, but there were only isolated showers along the way. That’s not to say that the weather was in any way pleasant, because it wasn’t. The winds were whipping up the waves on the coast, mixed with surprise horizontal downpours when you walked too far from the car.
Arriving in Galveston, I was a little at loss about why I decided to visit Galveston. I went to visit the pier, but even though it looked rather out-dated and a little run down, there was a significant entrance fee to enter – and the rides were additional on top of this.
What did catch my eye though, were the enormous houses on stilts. The sheer size of these wooden houses confused me. Did a single family live/visit here? It was a shame that the weather wasn’t more co-operative, as I’d imagine that this stretch of coastline is rather pretty when it’s at its best.
I was really taken aback by this cemetery, and thought more cemeteries should be covered by a field of flowers like this.
I also went to visit Kemah Boardwalk, which was a recommendation from a Texan local. Driving between Galveston and Kemah, I was reminded of Texas’s petroleum production, which I hadn’t really thought too much about until now – and I’m sure there are other areas of the state that have more oil/gas production happening.
I came to realise too late, that it wasn’t really worth the detour to visit this boardwalk. I’m not quite sure what I was hoping to find, but what I did find was a small amusement park by the water, and a whole lot of closed shops. There were a few bars and restaurants in the surrounding area, all preparing busily for the summer months, but not enough to want me to spend any more time than I already had.
Now I was forced to make a decision about what to do tonight. I was currently by the NASA centre, but there was nothing else to do out here. The alternative would be to drive back in to Houston and come back here in the morning – and that’s what I decided to do.
I found a cheap hostel, Wanderstay, on the outside of Houston. I checked in, changed, and quizzed the staff about places to go and things to do in the city – I was initially hoping to find somewhere to get a nice sunset view of the city, which looked interesting from the elevated motorway, but she had no suggestions. I decided to leave the camera behind, at the recommendation of the receptionist – since I planned to be walking around at night anyway, I didn’t see a need to drag more weight with me.
The walk took me through some areas that did make me feel uncomfortable, so I was glad I took her advice and left the camera behind. A further 30-minutes of walking past non-descript residential area, and I was even happier to not be dragging along additional weight. I also took the receptionists advice to visit a taco restaurant for dinner – yes, I chose tacos again this trip. They were a little more gourmet than the ones I’d been consuming in Austin, but still felt like street tacos – unlike some of the fancy (and delicious) places in San Francisco. The neighbourhood felt kind of arty, and had a bit of a hipster vibe to it – but a few blocks further, and I was out.
With no other plans or guidance, I just kept walking, looking on the map for concentration of bars/restaurants as my only real guidance. I’d tried to read up on Houston before I came, but I struggled a little bit to find a good suggestion. My wanderings did take me right past a Shake Shack, so I stopped by for a shake (and to use the bathroom). It just so happened that the NBA playoffs were on TV, with Golden State playing (and beating) Houston Rockets – which the majority of the restaurant didn’t seem to take too well…
I was a little disappointed at my time in Houston, but it’s an enormous city, and I really struggled to find where to go (as a solo traveller) to make the most of a few hours of an evening. Hopefully if I return, I get a little more guidance – and enjoyment – out of a trip.
The next morning I set my alarm early (ish) so that I could try a nearby (and highly rated) breakfast joint – Breakfast Klub. It wasn’t too far from where I had tacos last night, but that walk was once enough for me, and opted to drive. I thought I’d be smart, and arrive 20 minutes before the doors opened at 8AM. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one with this wise idea, and I went and joined the queue that already wrapped around the building. The wait staff started bringing out menus, so at least I had the opportunity to start making my mind up – but, really, it was always going to be their special – the catfish and grits, because I don’t think you’d find this in SF.
Right on 8AM, the doors opened, and most of the queuing hungry masses were seated shortly after. I was told that my decision for the katfish and grits was a most excellent one, which I took with fried eggs (I needed more fried food), and a biscuit (which, is not like a biscuit in Australia/UK, but more like a scone – though more savoury, and buttery). Anyway, it was greasy, salty and incredibly rich. I was confident that I didn’t need anything else to eat – at least for a few more hours – and wouldn’t have to risk food at the Space Center.
NASA Space Center
This was the real reason that I made the journey out to Houston! I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I have a love/fascination with space, and rockets, and all things NASA. Given a choice between visiting Disneyland and here, I’d choose this every time. Probably.
It was pouring down rain by the time I arrived, which was still before they opened the gates. I’d been more organised with my NASA visit, than my Houston visit, so I had already pre-purchased my ticket online – which saved money, and I didn’t have to queue at the ticket counter.
Unsure where to start, I ran around like a kid inside this museum, trying to read all the information, and try all the interactive elements. It was after about 20-minutes of doing this that I realised, it’s really aimed more at children, rather than adults. I learnt a lot, and saw some amazing exhibits, but it felt like a lot of the information and displays were ELI5 versions.
But, it was just satisfying to see all the old equipment, and be amazed by how low-tech and fragile most of it looked. They had orbiters, suits and tools of all vintages either hanging from the ceiling, or in display cabinets simulating their use.
And, it’s not to say that I didn’t learn anything – because I absolutely did. For one, I didn’t know much about the Skylab, other than some precursor to the ISS crashing into Western Australia before I was born. They had an amazing mockup of the interior, which looked much more like the spaceships in movies (2001, Alien) than the newer ISS does – though, I guess they’re of a similar vintage.
It didn’t take too long to sweep through all the exhibits, and pick up a couple of the movie presentations. However, what I really wanted to see was the control room, but due to the heavy rain, wasn’t accessible, as it was in another external building.
There was just one final area to visit, and that was the space shuttle Independence that was mounted on top of a custom Boeing 747! It was still raining, but it was worth getting wet to walk around and just take it in from all angles. I had seen a (model) Buran at the Cosmonaut Museum in Moscow, but this was far more impressive – possibly because it wasn’t a replica!
After I satisfied myself with the views while walking around in the rain, I went up inside. There wasn’t much you could see inside the shuttle, other than the cockpit, and parts of the loading bay. But, you could also go down into the Boeing 747 to walk around the stripped-out plane, and read about its creation and history – as well as more about the successes and tragedies of the shuttle program.
They still were not taking tourists to the control centre, even though there was quite a large queue already forming, so I gave in, and decided to make a move on my return to Austin.
The Orange Show
But, there was just one (well, there were a few more, but they were closed) thing I wanted to see in Houston before I left. Well, turned out that The Orange Show was also closed – though, I can’t grumble too hard about it, because it seems to have been related to a funeral that was taking place in the park next door.
And, the park next door was open, and I was able to walk around and admire the sculptures in some parts of the park without interrupting on the funeral.
The park had a feeling to it, like a cross of Park Guell (Gaudi park in Barcelona), and maybe Ideal Palace (the postman Cheval’s bizarre creation). The sculptured wall was made from all types of broken and re-imagined materials – my favourite of which was the glass mixing bowl, re-imagined as a portal for a spaceship!
Even though it was raining (and a funeral was going on next door), it was hard to leave without seeing all the amazing little hidden pieces of detail.
I did manage to see it all, and my shoes weren’t too wet by the end of it. I was no back in the car, and on my way for another weekend in Austin.