Sixty years ago, NASA broke ground in the Clear Lake area of Houston to construct a new command post for manned space exploration. The Manned Spacecraft Center’s most pressing mission was to accomplish President John Kennedy’s goal to send a man to the moon and return him safely.
This project was a part of the 1960s Space Race, a competition between two Cold War rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union. Besides demonstrating who has the mightiest rocket power and superior technology, it also tipped the balance of military power toward one country or the other. Space, especially the moon, was the major front in the conflict between the two countries. Texas is positioned on the front lines of space travel, thanks to NASA.
History of Space Travel in Texas
Space travel in Texas is rooted in the Johnson Space Center. It has its origins in NASA’s Space Task Group (STG). Beginning on November 5, 1958, the Langley Research Center engineers under Robert R. Gilruth directed Project Mercury and follow-on crewed space programs.
The Beginning of the Johnson Space Center
Originally named the Manned Spacecraft Center, the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) is NASA’s center for human spaceflight training, flight control, and research. It was built and leased to NASA by Joseph L. Smith & Associates, Inc.
The facility consists of a complex of 100 buildings constructed in Houston, which acquired the official nickname “Space City” in 1967. JSC is home to NASA’s astronaut corps and is responsible for training astronauts from the US and its international partners. It also houses the Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center, which provides the flight control function for every NASA human spaceflight since Gemini 4, which included famous flights such as the Apollo, Space Shuttle, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz. This mission control center is also known by its call signs like “Houston” and “Mission Control.”
During the 1960s, the growth of the US space program caused them to outgrow the then-current Langley and Goddard space flight centers. T. Keith Glennan, NASA’s first administrator, realized the need for a new location, so he wrote a memo on January 1, 1961, to his yet-unnamed successor, recommending a new site to be chosen. Later that year, when President John F. Kennedy set the goal to bring a person to the moon by the end of the decade, it became clear that they would need a larger organization to lead the Apollo Program, with new test facilities and research laboratories.
On July 7, 1961, NASA Administrator James E. Webb directed the site criteria and site selection team. The essential criteria for the new site included the availability of first-class weather airport and water transport, proximity to a significant telecom network, a well-established pool of contractor and industrial support, a great water supply, and a mild climate that can allow all-year outdoor work.
The team initially came up with a list of 33 cities based on water and climate criteria, then cut it short to nine cities with nearby federal facilities. Ultimately, it was decided that Houston, Texas, must be the location of the laboratory. Lyndon Johnson, the Vice President and the head of the Space Council, was a Texas native. Also, it was near recognized, prominent universities, including Rice University, University of Houston, and Texas A&M University.
Mission Control Center and Project Gemini
In 1961, as plans for Project Gemini started, it became clear that the Mercury Control Center located at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch center would become insufficient to control missions with maneuverable spacecraft like the Apollo and Gemini. Philco’s Western Development Laboratory bid on a contract and won, and they built the electronic equipment for the new Mission Control Center (MCC), which was located in Building 30 of MSC, rather than the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland or the Canaveral. Construction started in late 1962.
The new center had two Mission Operations Control Rooms, allowing for training and preparation for a later mission to be carried out while a live mission is in progress. It was brought online for testing during the Gemini 2 flight in 1965 and the crewed Gemini 3 flight that same year, while the Mercury Control Center still kept primary responsibility for controlling these flights.
The space center’s famed MCC has been the operational hub of every American human space mission since the Gemini 4. It manages all activity onboard the space station and directs all space shuttle missions. Besides conducting mission simulations and operations with flight controllers, space was allocated for key NASA engineering and scientific personnel, along with representatives of major contractors to support each mission. The increased presence of experts strengthened the problem-solving capabilities of the MCC team.
The team occupied the Spacecraft Analysis Room, which became known as SPAN. JSC and the industry engineering teams supported missions in this room. This arrangement permitted immediate contact with key JSC experts and representatives in case assistance was needed in resolving technical anomalies that might arise during missions.
During the 1990s, the technology supporting MCC operations was outdated and needed replacing. After renovations and replacements, a state-of-the-art MCC became operational in July 1995, and the Apollo MCC was set aside as a national historic facility.
Nearby, there’s Ellington Field, which hosts center flight operations. The aircraft includes a KC-135 four-engine jet that can produce space-like weightlessness by flying a series of arcs, some T-38 jet trainers, and a twin-engine Gulfstream specially modified to perform like a landing shuttle orbiter.
On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike hit Galveston and caused minor damage to the Mission Control Center and other buildings at JSC. The storm damaged the roofs of many hangars for the T-38 Talons at Ellington Field.
Besides housing NASA’s astronaut operations, JSC was also the site of the former Lunar Receiving Laboratory, where the first astronauts returning from the moon were quarantined. The center’s Landing and Recovery Division operated the MV Retriever in the Gulf of Mexico for Gemini and Apollo astronauts for water egress training after splashdown.
After the death of Lyndon B. Johnson in February 1973, President Richard Nixon signed a Senate resolution into law, renaming the Manned Spacecraft Center in honor of Johnson. As a Senate Majority Leader, Johnson sponsored the 1958 legislation that created NASA.
In June 2019, the restored Apollo Mission Control Center was opened for tourists.
Today, the Johnson Space Center serves as the lead NASA center for the International Space Station, which is a US-led collaborative group of 16 nations featuring the largest, most powerful, and most complex human facility to ever operate in space. It’s one of the ten major NASA field centers.
JSC also houses NASA’s Astronaut Corps and is responsible for training space explorers from the United States and space station partner nations. It’s the main training site for both the International Space Station Expedition crews and space shuttle crews.
JSC leads NASA’s flight-related scientific and medical research efforts, striving to make revolutionary discoveries that can benefit all humankind. Many technologies that were first developed for space flight are developed to have applications in transportation, energy, medicine, electronics, communications, and agriculture.
Also, the JSC manages the testing, development, production, and delivery of hardware supporting spacecraft functions, including life support systems and other human spacecraft-related functions.