One Giant Leap for NASA

The very first word the world heard man speak from the moon was "Houston." But for years, moonstruck visitors by the millions had to find their way on ill-marked roads to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, "basically just to stand on the dirt where astronauts live and train," says Bob Rogers, of BRC Imagination Arts, a firm that designs theme parks. NASA's tight budget precluded displays more elaborate than a few artifacts stuck along the hallway outside an employee auditorium. But six years ago, a group of business and community leaders formed a foundation to raise funds for a proper, high-tech tourist attraction. Last week officials opened Space Center Houston, a $70 million, 183,000-square-foot building packed with enough entertaining and educating gizmos to keep the average fourth-grade class busy for six hours. It's not difficult to see what NASA had in mind. When Patricia Trostman's fourth-grade class at St. Pius V School was asked how many wanted to be astronauts after their visit to the center, two dozen little hands shot up with a deafening scream: "Meeeee! "

Pundits have long claimed that the public has lost interest in the space program. "But we've never believed it," says Harold Stall, a NASA spokesman who doubles as president of Space Center Houston. "Even after the Challenger exploded, when we were taking a lot of hits on [Capitol] Hill, our mail (6,000 letters a month) was telling us to get back on the horse and ride," he says. The Houston foundation contacted The Walt Disney Co., which recommended BRC, a designer of Epcot Center. Now Space Center Houston is billed as "the closest thing to space on earth"; 2 million visitors are expected the first year.

The tour can start with " On Human Destiny," an 11-minute film on the history of the space program with stirring voice-overs of John F. Kennedy's exhortation to explore space. The film uses only NASA footage, from John Glenn's blastoff for the first orbital mission to stark, silent portraits of NASA personnel as they reacted to the Challenger explosion. From there, visitors step into a dark, cavernous room, meant to resemble the heavens, lighted only by a thousand pinpoints of light. Arrayed against this man-made Milky Way are the tiny non-manned Explorer satellite and capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. "You forget how small these things were," said one visitor, suddenly reminded of her place in the universe.

The museum isn't just about looking--it's about touching, too. Visitors can stroll through a mock-up of the shuttle's cabin. Those who care to pretend that they're Dan Marino can try on space gloves and helmets too. But the centerpiece of the museum is the "Feel of Space" area. Here volunteers get to experience some of the problems of maneuvering in simulated zero gravity. First, a visitor is strapped into the world's greatest reclining chair. It appears to be floating on the stainless-steel floor because air is shooting down through its four casters. The "astronaut" starts a five-minute game, attempting to direct the progress of a mock satellite that is hovering above the chair. This task is more frustrating than a game of Tetris; if the "satellite" is bumped by an errant finger, it floats away, just as objects do in zero gravity. "Fuel" is short, time is restricted and a crowd of kibitzers tell you how to do it better. Rose Leewright of Clear Lake, Texas, watched as her 11-year-old daughter, Leslie, tried the exhibit while bystanders cheered her on. " Remember when those astronauts were trying to catch a satellite?" says Leewright. "This makes you understand what they're up against."

If the line for the chair is too long, visitors can head directly for a wall of computer simulators where they can try to land a space shuttle. More than just a juiced-up Nintendo, the exhibit resonates with sounds of crashes while a visitor " veers into a swamp" or "explodes on the runway" if, as is usually the case, the landing is unsuccessful.

Unlike the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the center charges admission. (NASA waives the fee for school field trips by children from low-income areas.) It costs $14 for an adult and child, a bargain by amusement-park standards. Think of it as a small step for tourism, but one giant leap for NASA.