NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC), located near Houston, has been leading America's human space exploration efforts for over five decades. It is where NASA conducts and coordinates all aspects of manned spaceflight. Now it is setting its sights on taking human beings to Mars.
Johnson Space Center's main function is to plan and oversee missions into space. From the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab projects to the space shuttle program and, now, the international space station, all NASA space missions have been controlled from JSC's Mission Control Center.
"The Mission Control Center has been here since the early '60s, and has supported every human space flight program the U.S. has flown since the beginning," said Holly Ridings, a NASA Flight Director. "We still use that building today. If you walk over there right now, we've got 6 astronauts and cosmonauts in space. We've got our ground teams supporting them with a flight director in charge of that team," Ridings said.
Ridings pointed out another important function of the Johnson Space Center is selecting and training NASA astronauts. Every NASA astronaut receives rigorous training at state-of-the art facilities before going into space.
"The building we're in right now is our mock-up training facility. We have life size parts of the international space station, where you can get a feel for how things are put together. We do a lot of emergency training in these modules, so the crew learns where to go and what to do if something goes wrong on the space station," she said.
The Neutral Buoyancy Lab is a very large pool that simulates the weightless conditions of space flight. Astronauts can practice spacewalking in full-size modules of the space station.
Besides supporting crew members at the international space station 24 hours a day, the Johnson Space Center is responsible for building the crew vehicle of NASA's Orion spacecraft, which aims to take humans further than ever before and usher in a new age of space exploration.
If all goes well, NASA plans to use Orion to take humans to Mars in the 2030s.
Ridings encourages space fans everywhere to find ways to participate in human space exploration.
"From a worldwide perspective, there's room in space for all of us to do wonderful things together, and we need to really advance that for the human species," she said. "So, even if you don't have a space program in your country, there are ways to get involved. So I would be positive and be excited and look for ways to help."