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Texas Forever!

Here we are at the final stop on my 5-and-a-half-week journey up, across and down the United States and what a way to finish up!  As they often say, save the best for last and I’ll have to be honest with you that throughout my entire journey, I was always thinking, I just can’t wait to head to Texas.

Now what I was going to do whilst in the biggest State of The United States was a bit of a mystery to me.  All I knew was that I would be meeting up with Steve and Shirley (family friends of my sister and brother-in-law who I met at their wedding in 2012), heading up to Waco, the home of Baylor University, their alma mater, then back down to Houston.  Apart from that, the plan was to just wing it.

However, in the back of my mind, I was on a personal mission to answer a single question… Is everything really bigger in Texas?

Is everything bigger in Texas?

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‘Nuff said?

This has got to be one of the most important questions of all time and I’ll try and answer it here by going through a few examples which I was able to observe in my short time in Texas.  Whilst some cases may be arguable, I don’t think you could argue that Texas falls short in any of the areas covered.

Football in Texas

Sure, you’ve got massive football stories out there like Remember the Titan and We Are Marshall, but then you have Friday Night Lights, the book, the movie and the television show.

If you’ve never seen the TV series, here’s a good article about it…  Any attempt to try and describe why it is such a good show is bound to fail, so I’ll just say that it’s about life in a small Texas town (called Dillon, but based on Odessa, Texas) and the town’s highschool football team.  The TV series (I can’t comment on the book or movie) portrays the town as being totally obsessed with their football team and their quest to be crowned State Champions each year at all costs.

Now I was very lucky to get a taste of what highschool football means to the local community in a small trip to Crawford, Texas, (in)famously known as the location of George W Bush’s ranch and the Western White House back during his presidency.

The first thing you see when entering the town...
The first thing you see when entering the town…
Even though there is absolutely nothing in Crawford, there is this memorial.
Even though there is absolutely nothing in Crawford, there is this…
Retired numbers from State Championship players.
Retired numbers from State Championship players.

Note that there are 45 names on that plaque, including players and coaches.  Add a mother and father to each of those names and you get 135 people.  Note the sign below showing the population of Crawford to be 717.  Therefore, 19% of the town is directly related to a player or staff of the highschool football team…  This is one small community!

Sure, it’s 2A Division II, but this tiny place developed a State Championship team!  If you think that 2A Division II is some small comp with a few teams, think again.  The last time I checked, there are 109 schools competing in this Division and the State Finals are still played at the stadium of the Dallas Cowboys NFL team.  Just have a look at the 2013 2A Division II State Final broadcast– it’s as big if not bigger than most NRL or Super 15 games back home!

Steve did note that in some of the smaller schools, some of their football players would get changed out of their playing gear and into their marching band attire to perform in the half time show, though I don’t quite see that happening here!

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Whilst I’m on the topic of Crawford, I’ll make a side note here by saying that the town seems to be a shadow of it’s former self now that George W Bush’s presidency is over and he’s spending most of his time with his daughter in Dallas.

It looks like the town’s highschool football team will again be centre of attention!

The Yellow Rose was once a staple for visiting press, tourists and even members of the Secret Service who were stationed around the "Western White House"
The Yellow Rose was once a staple for visiting press, tourists and even members of the Secret Service who were stationed around the “Western White House”
Where’d everyone go?  Unfortunately, with the end of George W’s presidency came the end of a ‘golden period’ for the town.
The last surviving shop in Crawford Texas.

Stepping it up a level to College football and at the moment, you can’t go past the Baylor Bears Football Team, the 2013 Big 12 Conference Champions (a NCAA Divison I team).

Driving around Waco, the home of Baylor University and it’s pretty clear you’re in Baylor territory.

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Even though I was visiting in March and that the football season doesn’t start until late August, the team was in out of season training.  This means they could train up to 4 hours a day, 8 hours a week and boy were they making use of these hours!

As a ‘booster’ and a member of the Baylor Bear Foundation Line Backers Club, Steve was able to tee up a visit to a closed training session and pre-season information dinner with the coaching staff.

The training session was just like you see on TV and then some.  Players were performing drills according to their position, the teams (offensive, defensive, special) were running drills, there was full-team practice, one hand catching drills, foot-speed and agility training, blocking, punting, quarterback training; the whole lot!  All of this was occurring whilst a trailer full of speakers blared music across the training ground to simulate a game day atmosphere.  It was loud and effective.

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Specialised drills for each position.

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Team huddle before break up.
With fellow Aussie and Offensive Linesman, Blake Muir
With fellow Aussie and Offensive Linesman, Blake Muir

Playing football at College level is a massive commitment.  Not only do you have several training sessions a week, but you’re expected to follow this up with a strength and conditioning program (in their own time and without supervision to come under the maximum permitted scheduled training hours set by the NCAA) and study program as well.  In fact, the football team have their own building which houses their gym, locker room and study/tuition area.  As most of the players have scholarships to study and play at Baylor, falling short in either their performances on or off the field may result in the non-renewal of their scholarships in the following year and potentially their transfer to another football program in the country.  As a result, players treat both duties quite seriously!

Following practice that evening, I tagged along to a dinner for the ‘Line Backers’ Club, a kind of membership for the most dedicated of Baylor Football boosters.  Again, it was like a scene from Friday Night Lights (such as in the final episode of Season 1) where such supporters have dinner with the coaching staff and receive a briefing from each of the coaches on the current player roster, who is performing well in training, who is looking to start in 5 months time, who is having any issues etc.  It was serious stuff, with all coaches talking for at least 5 minutes on their specific area (multiply that by 10 or so coaches and it’s pretty much a full, one-hour State of the Baylor Nation address).  For a complete outsider, I’ll have to say that it was pretty damn interesting as it gave me a totally different insight into sports and supporter management.  Definitely a far cry from the ‘she’ll be right, when’s beer o’clock’ attitude back home!

Also on show was the 2013 Big 12 Conference Championship Trophy, which I was lucky to get a photo with, along with the head coach, Eric Taylor Art Briles.

With Steve, Shirley, Art Briles and the Big 12 Conference Football Trophy!
With Steve, Shirley, Art Briles and the Big 12 Conference Football Trophy!

To answer the question, football is pretty damn big here in Waco.  If I were to use a number to describe how big, I’ll say 250, as in $250 million.  That’s how much money is being spent to build Baylor University’s new, 45,000 seat football stadium!  Therefore yes, it is pretty damn clear that football is big in Texas so much so that Friday Night Lights seems more believable than ever.

The new stadium for Baylor Football - the $250 million McLane Stadium opening in August 2014.
The new stadium for Baylor Football – the $250 million McLane Stadium opening in August 2014.

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Longhorns

There’s nothing quite like staring in the face of a Texas Longhorn. Though reportedly gentle creatures who rarely are rarely aggressive towards humans, they do look rather imposing!

Okay, so it turns out that the largest horns are found in Australia, but the sight of a Longhorn is something long associated with the State of Texas. Their popularity as a admired creature is as such that you can even pay for a photo with a longhorn at the Houston Rodeo (for something like $15 a photo!)  Luckily, Steve was able to spot a few by the roadside on our way out to SpaceX near Waco.

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“What are you looking at??”

Speaking of SpaceX, Waco is home to the only development complex of SpaceX; the place where manufactured rocket assemblies are shipped to be tested, before they are then transported to their launch locations.  sharing the McGregor Industrial Park with a roofing company, a chair company and a builder of cubby houses, the SpaceX facility definitely stands out!

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You can get this close to the test launch site!
Drive thru’s/in’s

Ok, drive thru’s (sic). They’re everywhere now right?  But I swear that in Texas, you can spend a while day in your car without any reason to get out.  In fact, Steve and I spent a whole morning driving around and not once did we have to get out for anything. Sure, you have the standard drive thru’s for fast food and coffee (Shipley’s Do-nuts (sic), Starbucks, etc) but drive thru ATM’s?

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In terms of fast food, one must have a look at the Sonic chain of drive-in restaurants.

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Instead of a drive thru, you drive in, park your car in front of an ordering box, order, eat in the car then drive off.  Ingenious.  With 1,392,085 different drink options available, you could be parked there for quite a while! Until you need to use the bathroom anyway!

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Each car park space has it’s own speaker box to order meals from. Once placed, attendants will deliver your order to your vehicle for you to consume.

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Vehicles

Not exclusive to Texas but definitely a symbol of the South perhaps? Either way, the vehicles down here were pretty big.  A lot of the dealerships also sell pre-modified versions of their trucks, in case what was on offer wasn’t big enough.  Maybe they needed something bigger to tow their even bigger caravans?

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This is a small one…

However I must say, I did see the biggest sleeper cabin for a prime mover!  Seriously, they must have extended the chassis then bolted on a small caravan…  They obviously don’t need to adhere to the 14.6m maximum semi trailer length as in Australia!

Now that's a sleeper cabin!
Now that’s a sleeper cabin!
Servo’s (Gas stations)

Pulling into a Buc-ee’s in Texas is certainly an experience in itself.  Whilst I’m sure there are larger gas stations out there, they’re usually located on big highways or freeways and are large because they service trucks and their drivers more than anything else.  Buc-ee’s on the other hand are just for every day drivers and journey makers.

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Have you ever pulled into a servo to buy something and were disappointed at the lack of range and exorbitant prices?  Buc-ee’s is definitely the exception to both.  It’s bigger than most supermarkets in Australia!

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Texas forever?
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A litre of coffee? No wonder you need a thermos to keep it warm!

The quality of the food here can’t be questioned either; for me, the beef jerky is definitely a winner!  Again, if you’re after anything… groceries, hunting equipment, car parts and supplies, rugs even, this is your one stop shop.

Cowboy boots

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.  When in Texas, get yourself a pair of boots 😛  There certainly is no shortage of places to get boots, with massive stores such as The Boot Barn and Cavender’s Boot City. So naturally I had to get myself a pair, especially if I am to be going to a rodeo!

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Luckily Trent at the shop was more than helpful in aiding my selection, otherwise I would’ve spent hours in that shop!  I’m pretty sure every single style in the world was available…

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After narrowing it down to the colour black and something not too outrageous, I settled on a pair of Larry Mahan Black U-Toe Bullhide Western Boots.  Made in Nocona, Texas and extremely comfortable to wear.

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Rodeo’s

Houston’s signature event every year is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.  Hands down, it is the world’s largest rodeo by attendance figures (2.4 million in 2014) and with over $2 million USD of prize money handed out in 2014, it’s also one of the richest.  Since 2003, it has been held at the 71,054 seat Reliant Stadium and draws massive entertainment acts to cater for the broad mix of attendees.

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Reliant Stadium – home of the Houston Rodeo

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I was lucky enough to be able to have an afternoon and evening at the 2014 Livestock Show and Rodeo, with front row ‘action’ seats where you’re so close that you’re likely to be hit with flying dirt from horses galloping past…  Cover your food and drinks people!

As I mentioned before, the Rodeo isn’t just for ‘cowboys’ or people who want to dress like cowboys and cowgirls, but for literally everyone and anyone.  The entertainment line up that year definitely reflected that with acts like Usher, Selena Gomez and Maroon 5 (catering for African-Americans, Hispanics and Caucasian people??) .  Of course, there’s no shortage of country with the list of artists too long to mention here.

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The Livestock Show
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Get your boots polished!

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The dog treats are certainly bigger in Texas...
The dog treats are certainly bigger in Texas…

There are plenty of words and phrases associated with Texas, but right up there in the list would have to be “Texas BBQ”.  Think of the final scenes in the movie, The Right Stuff where the Mercury 7 astronauts are welcomed to Houston Texas by Lyndon Johnson with a massive BBQ in the Houston Astrodome…

Okay, so there wasn’t that big a BBQ happening on the day I visited, but the Rodeo does host a “World’s Championship BBQ” event with over 300 cooking teams taking part…  But of course, you can get a taste of Texas BBQ from the various food pavilions scattered around the grounds, along with some other American deep fried specialities.

The selection of deep fried foods is certainly bigger in Texas!
The selection of deep fried foods is arguably bigger in Texas!

Back in the Arena and the Rodeo was about to begin.  Today’s event was the Wildcards for the BP Super Series – basically the last chance for competitors to make it into the semi finals to win the big prizes on Sunday.

Events included tie-down roping, bareback riding, team roping (my favourite), saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, bull riding and the calf scramble.  The calf scramble was probably the most entertaining, watching 30 kids run around the arena trying to catch their calf, then herd it back into the square marked in the centre of the stadium.  A cool video of this event can be found here.

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Waiting for the show to begin…

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After the calf scramble, the grounds were cleared and the main stage was moved to the centre.  Tonight’s entertainment was Easton Corbin… Never heard of him, but he seemed to have a bit of a following with over 70,000 people attending his concert.

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All in all, the rodeo (pronounced in America as ‘row-de-oh’ instead of ‘row-day-oh’ as in Australia) is clearly ‘the show’ event for Houston.  I would have loved to be in town the Friday before the start of the Rodeo, as it apparently is “Go Texan” day, where locals are encouraged to hold cowboy/cowgirl dress up competitions, hold roping contests, hold a chilli cook off etc.  As if Texas could be more Texas!

Bad-assness

One riot, one Ranger, or so the legend of Captain Bill McDonald: Texas Ranger. When sent to Dallas to prevent a scheduled prizefight, McDonald supposedly was greeted at the train station by the city’s anxious mayor, who asked: “Where are the others?” To that McDonald is said to have replied, “Hell! Ain’t I enough? There’s only one prize-fight!” (TexasRanger.org).

Seriously though, Texas is home to the oldest state law enforcement agency and paramilitary unit, the Texas Rangers and located in Waco is the Texas Ranger Museum and Hall of Fame. If you ever visit Waco Texas, a visit here is an absolute must.

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Inside is a very detailed history on the Texas Rangers, their origins, folklore, scope of operations, equipment and famous cases they have closed as well as a memorial to the 30 Rangers who have died in the line of duty.

Initially responsible for the protection of settlers from hostile Indian tribes such as the Commanches, their duties later expanded with Rangers playing significant roles in the war with Mexico, the Civil War, law and order within the republic and later State of Texas and in modern times, the investigation of major felony crimes and support of other domestic and international law agencies.

Rangers were not officially given bades to wear, but many created their own to wear, initially crafted out of a Mexican 5 pesos coin.
Rangers were not officially given bades to wear, but many created their own to wear, initially crafted out of a Mexican 5 pesos coin.

In keeping with the Ranger tradition, Texas Rangers have no set uniform, but instead procure their own clothing and uniforms with the guideline that they look “western” in nature.  In general, Rangers in the past have proven themselves to be highly resourceful, adapting skills, tactics and equipments from whatever adversary they face to create an advantage which would allow them to carry out their duties with fierce tenacity.

Such ferocity has led to them being labelled as “Los diablos Tejanos” or “the Texas Devils” during the Mexican War and when the US Army Rangers arrived in the European Theatre during World War II, the German press mistakenly identified them as the Texas Rangers, which apparently caused much distress amongst the German public!

Probably one of the most famous domestic cases closed by the Texas Rangers is the forced retirement of the infamous duo, Bonnie and Clyde.  Notorious for a trail of indescribable crimes, Bonnie and Clyde met their end after being tracked by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer via means unconventional at the time.  After trailing the pair for 102 days, Hamer and a posse of 3 fellow Rangers and two Louisiana offers ambushed their vehicle, unloading 130 rounds from their Browning Automatic Rifles, shotguns and pistols.  A coroner’s report later suggested that each were hit with up to 50 rounds, all of which would have been lethal.

Surely this case along with the mythology and folklore makes the Texas Rangers one of those most bad-ass law enforcement agencies out there…

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A painting depicting the ‘arrest’ of Bonnie and Clyde
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Modern day equipment of the Rangers
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Working with foreign law enforcement agencies

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A very ornate pistol used by a Ranger
A very ornate pistol used by a Ranger

Okay, things might be bigger in Texas, but are they better?

The food dished up in the state is proof that you can get quality and quantity at the same time.  Though it’s obvious that I did not go to every food chain, restaurant and cafe in Texas, what I did eat (recommended by Steve and Shirley) was absolutely fantastic.  From good ol’ Southern food to steaks, BBQ, Mexican, Tex-Mex and Cajun, it was up there with the best.

Waking for breakfast, Steve and I ventured around the corner from his loft in Waco to Jake’s Texas Tea House.  Apart from some pretty cool décor inside, breakfast was filling and tasty… Nothing like scrambled eggs with corn beef and potatoes!  Definitely a good start!

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If you haven’t had chicken fried steak before and you have the opportunity to do so, do it!  Think of it as steak, deep fried like KFC, hence chicken fried.  Even though I had the ‘full order’ which I was expected not to finish, (you know the look you get from those in your company when you order a big meal without really knowing how big it is and they think you can’t finish it? I got that from everyone around me), well I finished it along with a side of chicken fried jalapeños…

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Chicken fried steak… mmm…

Along with an ‘original Big-O’ (Texas-sized Budweiser), this was a great addition to my culinary adventures in Texas 😛 (I can see all you foodies out there shaking your heads…)

For dessert, I was told you can’t go past “Blue Bell” icecream.  To me, the biggest challenge when wanting to eat icecream (and it’s a huge challenge) is deciding which flavour.  Do you go for something fruity or nutty? Some sort of chocolate flavour? Or something with toffee maybe, or the always-a-contender, cookies and cream?

How about having the whole lot, because that’s pretty much what you get with Blue Bell’s “Moo-llennium Crunch”.  Ok, so it doesn’t contain any fruits or cookies, but it has chocolate, caramel, pecans, almonds and walnuts.  The vanilla base is also superb…  I can see why they sell 5L tubs of it at the supermarket!

Everything you ever wanted in an icecream flavour...
Everything you ever wanted in an icecream flavour…

If you’re ever in Waco and looking for some breakfast, make your way to Lolita’s Tortilleria and Restaurant on Franklin Avenue.  Why have a Bacon and Egg McMuffin when you can get a potato-bacon-bean breakfast taco with cheese and sour cream for $1.85??  According to Shirley, this place really packs the morning after a big football game…  I’m surprised it’s not packed out 24/7 as their tacos were delicious!

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Note the Baylor University flags on the walls?

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What a way to start another morning…

My last meal in Texas was at Babin’s Seafood House for some cajun food.  With a huge selection of fresh fish and seafood, Babin’s is definitely not for someone who has trouble choosing what to order, with a large daily selection of fresh fish and multiple methods on how you wish your fish to be cooked.   For me, after some prawns (or shrimp), crawfish, scallops and dirty rice (rice boiled with ground bits of bacon, shrimp, chicken livers etc) along with some red beans with rice and sausage… I definitely met my match as I was unable to finish my meal.  That’s not to say it wasn’t tasty (because it sure was), but after days and nights of stuffing myself, I could take no more!

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Based on these few examples, I can say that even though the serving sizes are huge, there is no sacrifice in quality when it comes to meals in Texas.  Bear in mind though that “quality” doesn’t necessarily translate here into ‘healthy’…  Come to think of it, if I ate like this for the entire 5 and a half weeks, I would be taking a lot of excess baggage with me backon the plane, even with my fast metabolism!

But wait, there’s still more!

So apart from football, rodeos, rangers, big things and incredible food, what else is there in Texas?  Well, for one, if you’re in a small town, the stereotypical quirks of small town USA do exist, such as die-hard Republican/Confederate supporters and red-neck propaganda, as seen on the door of the old First National Bank in McGregor.

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“Come and take it” or so goes the saying…

You also get your fair share of small town news:  Whilst in Waco, the local news reported that a bull was on the loose on the streets, certainly not something you hear about every day!  As the story reports, the good thing about living in Texas is that when you call for a cowboy, there’s one not too far away…

Eventually, police officers were able to corner the bull in a fence on the the corner of S 3rd St and Oakweek Ave.  There, animal control cowboys arrived on scene and just like a team-roping event, they caught the bull which had escaped from the local vet.

Unfortunately, Steve and I were too late to catch the action live, but we did go to the scene of the event to get a photo!  Only in Texas as they say!

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Where it all ended.. cnr of S 3rd St and Oakwood Ave…

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Johnson Space Centre

I guess it is only fitting that the last major attraction I saw in the States before jetting back to the UK was NASA related having started my journey at the Kennedy Space Centre.

Like Cocoa Beach, Florida, Houston stakes it’s claim to be “Space City” as evident by the many businesses including McDonald’s on the way to the Centre.

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A pair of T-38’s at the main entrance.

Also, similar to the Kennedy Space Centre, the main visitors area is actually a ‘theme park’ styled building, which has tours which depart to the actual Johnson Space Centre.  However, unlike the Kennedy Space Centre, it’s much more ‘kid orientated’ and there are certainly less artefacts and nostalgic displays here.

Being the NASA centre for manned spaceflight, free tours are offered from the visitors complex to the Johnson Space Centre and a $90.00 “Level 9 Tour” is offered, which gives visitors access to the astronaut training facilities including the world’s largest indoor water training facility.  Unfortunately,the Level 9 tour is often booked out well in advance.

However, we were still able to hop on the free tours to the Mission Control building and Space Vehicle Mockup Facility which houses a mock up of the International Space Station and the development of the next generation NASA vehicles and modules including the Space Launch System (SLS) Module, Robonaut 2, Spidernaut and Space Exploration Vehicle.  Whilst the Kennedy Space Centre is the launch facility of NASA, the development of manned spacecraft takes place here and are shipped over to Florida to launch.

Back during the days of the Space Shuttle, Mission Control in Houston would take over from the Kennedy Space Centre within a minute of the Shuttle Launch.

 

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Mock up of the International Space Station.

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Mock up of the new SLS crew module.
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Space Exploration Vehicle demonstrator and the new “Spidernaut”
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The first ‘space ready’ Space Exploration Vehicle… And a rocket motor.
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Robonaut 2
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Just like in the Saturn V building at the Kennedy Space Centre, former engineers are on hand to answer questions in the Saturn V building at the Johnson Space Centre.
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Mission Control… Note the font used to for the room sign. This is the same font used in the mock-up Mission Control Centre at the ATX Training Facility in the Astronaut Hall of Fame, Florida.
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I wonder what the satellite tracks over Russia and China are for..?

On the outside however, the Centre appeared to be just a fraction of what it used to be back in NASA’s heyday.  With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA currently does not have a manned space program, so activity here seemed to be at an all time low.   One can only hope that with the new Space Launch System (SLS) set for it’s first launch in 2017, activity here will again be ramping up.

Goodbye USA! Thanks for having me!

When planning my trip to the States, I knew that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to properly train for my trek to Everest Base Camp in April according to the recommendations in the trek notes…  Therefore, when deciding my end point for my journey, I gave myself a 3 week buffer to between the end of my trip to the States and the start of my journey to Nepal to complete preparations and last minute training.  Therefore it was time to say good bye to the USA and back to the UK.

What I can say is that after covering over 5000km’s on land and several thousand km’s flying domestically, it was so good to be greeted by a familiar face upon landing at my final stop on my journey.

I can’t give enough thanks to both Steve and Shirley for hosting me over the week which I was in the state.  There were so many ‘money can’t buy’ experiences in my time in Texas, of which only some are touched on in this post and of which I am truly grateful!

I’m definitely going to take you guys up on your offer to Y’all come back now you hear?  in hopefully the not too distant future!  Thanks guys!

Couldn't have asked for me... Thanks so much guys!
Couldn’t have asked for me… Thanks so much guys!

A last note…

A tip to anyone visiting Texas – you need to hire a car!  You could probably take buses around the major cities but it’s definitely a place where your own mode of transport is necessary to stay sane…  But be weary of peak hour traffic to avoid going insane at the same time!  Unfortunately, the way things are going with the motorways and overpass development, it seems highly unlikely that trains are going to be built any time soon either…

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