December 8, 2014
By Simon Grayson

Thanksgiving has just been here and gone in the US and despite thoroughly stuffing myself with two turkeys and a ham on Friday, I managed to use the rest of the long weekend to travel south and see every geek's dream - the NASA Control Centre at Houston (Johnson Space Centre).  (Above image courtesy noisydecentgraphics.com)

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Occupying a campus development to the south east of Houston, the Johnson Space Centre is absolutely amazing. Still operating as a fully functional R&D, training and mission control centre, there's also a large museum on the site documenting NASA's achievements over the years.

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Putting aside the large space shuttle sat on-top of a 747 which is temporarily sat in the car-park awaiting completion of its final display, at first glance the centre appears to be a sprawling jumble of ageing and non-descript concrete offices and warehouses. In-fact from much of the outside you wouldn't believe that from here  NASA controls its many ISS and other space missions. At Houston there's none of the high-tech glass-and-steel grandeur that you'd expect from such cutting edge activities, and other than a Saturn Five rocket silhouette stenciled onto one of the hangers there's not much given away in the architecture about what happens inside. This incongruity is further added to by the fact that there's a teaching farm complete with long-horn cattle sat right in the centre of the campus! (the centre actually sits within a wildlife reserve).

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Thinking further about this, there's something about science and technology which seems to mean that it is often sited in run-of-the-mill settings. Perhaps its a recognition that tight budgets and public funding are better spent on research and engineering rather than flashy premises, but I think there's an interesting question here for us architects as to whether we have a responsibility to somehow reflect the importance of a building's use in it's design.

Architectural existential crises aside, the museum and the way that they've successfully organized a number of tours  through the working-buildings is excellent. Highlights were definitely the cavernous research centre where NASA has a mock-up of the ISS for training and testing, and the control room (one of two, the tour visiting whichever was not operational at the time) where we caught site of a live stream of sunrise as seen from the ISS.  

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Definitely worth the visit, both to see some real American ingenuity and also to see what real drive and imagination can achieve. (Something to remind the engineer's we usually deal with next time they're saying that the plant room has to increase in size again!)

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