If New York is known as the “Big Apple” and New Orleans the “Big Easy,” Houston is “Space City.” That reputation began almost six decades ago, when NASA decided to open the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and put the city on the map.
Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Stuckey, who joined the Houston Chronicle to cover NASA’s mission to the moon, said the culture of NASA plays a “huge” role in the framework of the city itself.
“You can look everywhere and there’s space stuff,” Stuckey said. “I mean, there’s space murals everywhere.”
At George Bush Intercontinental Airport, there’s a moonwalking cow, and Houston boasts two space-themed sports teams: the Astros and the Rockets.
“Houston is among the first words uttered in outer space,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote the book “American Moonshot.” “NASA looks at Houston as the Vatican of space.”
But the Vatican of space had very humble beginnings. “Houston began its life as a muddy, swampy, mosquito-infested, yellow fever trap,” said Rice University professor Melissa Kean.
The growth is due in large part to city leaders’ determination to expand a creek known as Buffalo Bayou into a 25 mile-long shipping lane from the Gulf Coast port of Galveston, which had been leveled in 1900 by the nation’s deadliest natural disaster.
Houston leadership took advantage of this circumstance to undergo the audacious construction project. By 1960, the city had everything NASA was looking for: elite universities to support research and training, a modern airport, and a warm climate for working outdoors all year.
It also offered another major advantage: political clout. Congressman Albert Thomas controlled NASA’s budget as chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was also on board, as was construction magnate George R. Brown.
“Kennedy barely won Houston in 1960. He would need to win it in 1964 and pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Houston was good new frontier politics,” Brinkley said.
“NASA announced that the Manned Space Center was gonna be located in Houston on September 19th, 1961,” Kean said. “And every newspaper in town, the front page was covered with, ‘We’re Space City.’ ‘We are now fighting the Russians from Houston.’ It was spectacular.”
A year later, President Kennedy was at Rice teeing up the mission. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he famously said.
“All of a sudden, we felt like a young and vibrant and important place,” Kean said. “We’re building satellites. Our experiments are going up in space.”
Rice University was all in, too. The school donated land on the outskirts of the city for NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center and the people who worked there.
“Three years later, there’s a small city there,” Kean said with a laugh. “All around it, residential areas begin springing up like mushrooms.”
Those areas became home to the Mercury and Apollo astronauts, including Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins.
The lead up to the 1969 launch was infectious. “It was an oil and gas town, it was petroleum,” Brinkley said. “Once NASA comes to Houston, everything changes. Every business wants to be part of this moon energy.”
One example of this is the Astrodome, the world’s first multi-purpose domed stadium. After a successful, historic mission, the Apollo 11 crew were welcomed back in an Astrodome homecoming hosted by Frank Sinatra.
Fifty years later, NASA hopes to return to the moon – this time as a jumping off point to reach planets deeper in the solar system.
“People around my age, they want to go to Mars,” Stuckey said. “I’ve interviewed so many people that have said, ‘I’m not getting married, I’m not having kids, because I want to go to Mars.'”
Stuckey believes that curiosity comes from the desire to go where no one’s gone before – “which is what we had in the 60s.”
“This may be the age of Neil Armstrong we’re living in right now,” Brinkley said. “That’s how large breaking Earth’s gravitational pull is. So from years from now, Houston may be seen as the great American city where first-time earthlings from Houston were able to project to the solar system and beyond.”