HOUSTON — Hello? Anybody home?
At the Johnson Space Center, it is clear that the space shuttle program is winding down.
Visit historic Mission Control, scene of countless triumphs and heartbreaks, and realize that not only are the Gemini and Apollo programs long gone, but the 30-year space shuttle program is about to vanish as well — with nothing big to take its place.
With the last two shuttle missions set for Feb. 24 and April 18, the Johnson Space Center has a feeling of a university about to enter a long summer recess.
Yes, the International Space Station still will be a NASA project. Yes, astronauts still will train in Houston. Yes, tours will continue. But the grand story line of NASA is petering out.
For tourists, a visit to Johnson Space Center starts at Space Center Houston, its nonprofit visitors center. The whole place is a poignant reminder of how ambitious our nation once was, how naive, how determined.
Here's a version of the small Goddard liquid-fuel rocket that helped make space travel possible. Here are chunky and tiny moon rocks, a lunar rover and a massive trainer for the first space station, Skylab. Here, too, is the Apollo 17 command module from 1972, which carried the last astronauts to walk on the moon (and don't complain about your office cubicle — it's bigger than the capsule interior).
The center has an upbeat mood, fun simulators and a gift shop where visitors can buy a patch that says "Space Shuttle 1981-2011."
What it doesn't have is any indication of what's next.
Behind the scenes, the center is angling to get NASA to donate Space Shuttle Endeavour, Discovery or Atlantis to the museum once the shuttles are decommissioned later this year. That would be a coup, because space museums around the world are fighting for the same thing.
"We celebrate the history of manned space flight — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, all historic stuff," says Doug Mattice, spokesman for Space Center Houston. Now that the space shuttle is about to join those historic ranks, "there's a lot of history there," he says. "And whatever is next, we'll love talking about that, too."
If it got one of the space shuttles, the center would add a whole new building, increasing the center's size by 50 percent, and add new artifacts, says Jack Moore, another center spokesman.
When the tram takes visitors over to the Johnson Space Center, they see a famous facility, which employs about 17,000 workers and contractors, says NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries. This is where America's astronauts still learn the ropes.
Tourists get to see inside of Building 9, where astronauts train at the Space Vehicle Mockup facility. It has several spacecraft, but the room is dominated by a mockup of the space shuttle, where generations of astronauts have practiced living, working and learning every detail about the craft.
Soon, there will be no need for that old stage prop.
It and other space shuttle trainers are destined for museums. However, Humphries said tourists still will be able to see mockups of other vehicles and robotic trainers, perhaps even commercial vehicles that are being developed by private contractors.
The other highlight for tourists is Building 30. There, historic Mission Control, the spot most Americans think of as the real Mission Control, reigned from 1965-1992. This was the command post for Apollo 11, Apollo 13 and space shuttle Challenger. It has been restored as it looked in the 1960s, with pale green desks, pneumatic tubes, dial phones, no computers — and a big red phone that NASA used to call the Navy when an Apollo capsule was about to splash into the Pacific.
The current space shuttle mission control room in Building 30 likely will be used for simulations once the shuttle program ends, Humphries says, and likely will stay open to tourists.
Once the space shuttle flies into history this year, then what? Optimists talk of Mars, or of going back to the moon, or of other expensive dreams. But in the real world, private space companies are ascendant. NASA is waiting for word on the fate of its Orion program. Congress and the president still want NASA to do glorious things — but only if they're cheap.
Moore says just because the space shuttle is going away does not mean the end of manned space flight or the romance of space.
"We still have an active program at the International Space Station," he says. There are exciting things going on with robotics and a future manned space capsule.
"As the adventure of human space flight progresses, Space Center Houston will be part of that," he says.
Yet I walked around, and felt sad, and wondered where all that American gee-whiz, right-stuff, can-do spirit went, and all that money went, and wondered whether astronauts often feel forgotten, as if their incredible achievements are ordinary.
To me, it seems right to visit.
And wrong to forget that we once lived at a time when space travel was fresh and our budget was as big as our dreams.
IF YOU GO:
Space Center Houston and Johnson Space Center are 25 miles south of downtown Houston, near Hobby Airport. (1601 NASA Parkway, Houston, www.spacecenter.org, 281-244-2100.)
Space Center Houston is run by the nonprofit Manned Space Flight Education Foundation; its tram tour takes you to the working Johnson Space Center next door.
Admission is $20.95 for adults, $16.95 for ages 4-11 and $19.95 for ages 65-plus; online discounts available. I recommend the audio tour (additional).
Also offered is the Level 9 Tour, a 4-5 hour comprehensive tour that takes you further into the astronaut training facilities at Johnson Space Center.