Manned Spaceflight Finds A Home In Houston

NASA’s 1,620 acre Manned Spacecraft Center was the heart of it, but 100 aerospace companies, thousands of engineers, and even more thousands of families and businesses turned a Texas oil town into Space City.

By David Brown & Rhonda FanningJuly 19, 2019 9:07 am, ,

It was summer 1962 in Houston. The muggy heat felt the same as ever. But nothing would ever be quite the same again – not for Houston and not for Texas.

The brief was specific: the mission required a base located in a moderate climate with access to water transport by large barges, access to all-weather jet service, a nearby institution of higher education, a culturally-attractive community, an industrial infrastructure with a solid electrical grid, technical facilities, access to labor and at least 1,000 acres of land.

Twenty-three sites were narrowed down to 14. 

San Francisco, San Diego, Boston and Norfolk wouldn’t do. No other spot in the country was considered more worthy for the task ahead than this place, with its 1,620 acres of scrub and brush and marshy land as flat and unremarkable as it was seemingly worthless. Now, the first earth movers were arriving, sprinkled among the grazing cattle and a lonesome telephone pole or two.

Tomorrow was fast approaching. If, as John Kennedy promised in his speech at Houston’s Rice University, the U.S. were to put a person on the moon before the end of the decade, and before anyone else, Kennedy’s advisors had determined, with unsubtle nudging from Texas Congressmen, that the road would have to run through here – a tract of land beside Clear Lake, near Galveston Bay that would soon be known the world over as the Manned Spacecraft Center. 

President Kennedy came to Rice University on September 17, 1962.

“What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space. Houston, your City of Houston, with its Manned Spacecraft Center, will become the heart of a large scientific and engineering community,” Kennedy said.

The Manned Spacecraft Center would be home to scores of facilities for astronaut training and testing, as well as a new Mission Control, Mother Earth’s main point of contact for a new generation of explorers. Over the next five years, Kennedy promised, the arrival of NASA would double the number of scientists and engineers in the region, add some $60 million to local salaries, $200 million worth of new plants and facilities and some $1 billion worth of space projects from the new Manned Spacecraft Center.

NASA on The Commons [Public domain]

Site of the future Manned Spacecraft Center

And a stretch of Farm to Market Road 528 was rebranded: NASA Road 1 – the NASA Parkway. Soon, real estate speculators were traveling that road, sending land prices up over 300%, as developers raced to put up tract homes and apartment complexes. Young engineers, scientists, astronauts and their families arrived from all over to put down stakes in a space-age boomtown. 

“You need grocery stores, you need some entertainment, you need schools. The development was so fast, so rapid, they didn’t have a school,” Johnson Space Center Historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal says. “So initially, they went to school at the Clear Lake City Rec Center for a year, until the school opened.”

Sandra Dahdah

Johnson Space Center Historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal

Boosters projected the new Clear Lake City, adjacent to the Manned Spacecraft Center would soon boast 200,000 people. By 1965, homes were being snapped up as fast as they could be built. More than 100 aerospace corporations set up offices nearby, and a new technology park sprouted up with the promise of more jobs related to computers and space age progress.

“President Kennedy had inspired the country, and it was like a dream, you know. It was a very glorious time to get into the space business,” says Edward Pavelka Jr.

“I grew up on a rice farm, so as a country boy coming from a farm, going into the aerospace business, it was quite a bit of change,” says John Hirisaki, who worked with NASA in the Landing and Recovery Division.

“Houston was where the action was, and that seemed like the place to go. Most people were young. On Fridays we’d call around and go ‘who’s having the party tonight?’ One time there were 18 guys in an apartment and me and another girl. And we’re calling all the females in the area we knew, trying to get them over. So it was a great time. It really was.” says NASA heat shield engineer Parrish Hirisaki.

“Everybody who was involved with the program – the Apollo 11 mission – you feel a certain responsibility, obligation. There was an extreme sense of camaraderie that enveloped all of us,” says John Hirisaki.

“You know, it was my first job, so I had nothing to compare it with. And I would go to work every day and do things that people would think – wow, what are you doing out there – and I just thought that’s what everybody did. I didn’t know any better,” says Edward Pavelka, Jr. with NASA Flight Dynamics.

It’s a bit hard to capture the mania surrounding Texas’ role in the race to put man on the moon. All over the region, cars sported bumper stickers with slogans like “Space Town USA.” Houston’s Major League baseball team, the Colt 45s got a new name to match the mood. And the Astros got a new, UFO-shaped stadium to play games in, the futuristic Astrodome. The Astroworld amusement park wasn’t far behind.

Businesses from Galveston to Dallas to El Paso sprouted logos celebrating the space age. Space-themed murals adorned the hallways of high schools. Plastic space helmets replaced cowboy hats atop the heads of many a young Texan. Imagine! Astronauts coming here! Living here! The very notion seemed an important validation of sorts 

“Houston really got space fever,” Ross-Nazzal says. “I mean, think about it. Space was really exciting at that moment. The astronauts were celebrities. Even when they came down here to the Clear Lake area, some of the astronauts were looking for homes. They hadn’t flown yet, and the kids were running around saying ‘astronauts are looking at this house. They’re looking at houses,’ And they wanted their autographs. Even though they hadn’t flown in space yet.”

During the decade long countdown to Apollo 11, people watching successive launches heard astronauts begin each call back to planet Earth with Sam Houston’s last name – that gesture alone was an enormous validation to a place that had grown accustomed to being looked upon as the country cousin to the sophisticated coasts. For now, as everyone could hear, the future belonged to Houston, and by extension, all of Texas too.

Former Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke

Tristan Ipock / Texas Standard

Former Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke

But they didn’t abort, and orders were given to proceed with the landing on the moon.

“So the tension was rising. Then we missed the target. As he saw his landing spot, it was too rough,” Duke says.

When Apollo 11 finally landed safely, the astronauts reported back to Houston.

“Then, a few seconds later, the calmest voice in the whole place was Neil Armstrong,” Duke says.

“Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

It seemed that almost to a person, those in Mission Control remember not having time to reflect on what was happening as history unfolded. One shift worker at Mission Control recalled on the morning after Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon, going to a diner, reading the paper over breakfast, and having two veterans of D-Day spot his NASA badge. They told him they’d never been prouder to be Americans. He thanked them, folded his paper, went to his car and had a good cry. 

When Apollo 11 returned to Earth, the joke in Clear Lake was that the pink slips would be going out tomorrow. in truth, it took a few years for the public’s interest to fade, to refocus from Teflon, Tang and transistors to issues like Vietnam, civil rights and high crimes in high places.

Some recall later splashdown parties being more like wakes, as workers anticipated the next round of layoffs. Tough Clear Lake City never quite reached the population projections of the early 60s, it continued to take off – refineries and chemical companies moving into the offices once staffed by the first generation of space-related companies. 

But humankind’s first footprints on the moon left an indelible mark on Texas nonetheless.


With less than half-a-year left to meet Kennedy’s goal – in July of 1969, a Texan born just a bit to the west of the site that would become Mission Control was reporting on NASA’s biggest moment for CBS TV – newsman Dan Rather. 

“It’s very hard to recreate this for people today, who were not born at the time of the moon landing, or are not of memory age,” Rather says. “Almost literally, when they were counting down – ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five – there was a hush over the whole country, the likes of which I have never experienced before or since. A great hush. And then, a great ball of flame goes up. And you realize, here we go. That we’re going to ride fire to the moon. That hush extended almost to the time that the spacecraft disappeared. And from that moment on, there was a heart-tightening around the country… You’d have to go back to maybe D-Day of World War II, when the country as a whole, literally held its breath.”

Charlie Duke was an Apollo astronaut. He worked on both Apollo 10 and 11.

“The descent was fraught with problems on Apollo 11,” Duke says. “We first had communication dropouts, but we solved that. Then we had computer problems, computer overloads. When I saw that… to me, we’re dead in the water… You can’t land without a computer. That was the mission rules. And so I thought we were going to abort right there.”

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