The history of space flight is still relatively young, but it has already resulted in incredible accomplishments for humanity and lasting benefits for the world. Texas has been a part of the space program nearly from the beginning, including serving as the home of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In 1957, at the height of the Cold War, Americans were shocked when the Soviet Union was able to put an artificial satellite into orbit. It prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to call for expanded science and math education and also for the creation of America’s space exploration agency, NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson shared Eisenhower’s concerns about Soviet expansion into orbit, and Johnson quickly became an outspoken supporter of the American space program.
While a launch center was soon built at Cape Canaveral, Florida, NASA still needed an observation, flight control and training center. Because of the orbital dynamics of potential manned missions, 20 sites in the southernmost states were considered. Leading Texas sites included Victoria and Corpus Christi. Three sites in the Houston area were considered before a selection committee made its final choice. And Houston, given its well-developed infrastructure and proximity to Rice University and the University of Houston, had many factors working well in its favor.
On Sept. 19, 1961, NASA announced the selection of the Manned Spacecraft Center in southeastern Harris County near Clear Lake. Johnson, at this point the vice president and also chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council that oversaw NASA, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Bonham teamed up to make sure that the Houston site would be approved and funded by Congress.
Construction was not completed on the facility until September 1963, not until the first American manned missions, the Mercury program, was nearing its end. However, by the following June, the Manned Spacecraft Center formally became Mission Control with the Gemini 4 manned mission. The Gemini program focused on orbital flights and some of the earliest spacewalks to see how human beings could work and cope with the rigors of space travel. Along the way, new groups of astronauts would receive part of their training at the Space Center. In the meantime, now-President Johnson made sure that exploration efforts had all the funding and political support it needed.
By 1966, the center had more than 5,000 people working in 15 buildings on a multitude of projects on nearly 2,000 acres. It also served as Mission Control with the Apollo missions starting in 1968 as NASA prepared to send men to the Moon. During the Apollo flights, which saw astronauts walk on another world for the first time, astronauts reported back to the facility at each step, simply referring to the center as “Houston.” Six manned landings and four moonshots were directed from Houston.
After Lyndon Johnson died in January 1973, the center was renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in his memory. The Space Center continued to expand, incorporating more research and training projects, including the space shuttle program starting in the 1980s.
By the 1990s, more than 19,000 people worked at the Space Center, including more than 100 astronauts. In 1992, a new visitor center was completed at the facility. More than $50 billion in federal funding had been appropriated for the facility by the time it reached its 30th anniversary in 1993, which had resulted in billions of dollars being pumped into the local economy.
Today, the LBJ Space Center remains an integral part of the Houston economy and the cornerstone of NASA’s mission to explore the universe. It will be the focal point for future manned NASA missions, including future trips to the moon and even to Mars. So much of the future is built on the foundation of the past.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.