NASA Comes to Texas

In the 1960s, the expansion of the United States space program was rightfully associated with President Kennedy.  However, it had begun during the presidential terms of President Eisenhower.  In January of 1960, President Eisenhower urged Congress to give a new civilian space agency full responsibility for the development of nonmilitary space exploration.  This article is intended to be an overview of the early days of the space program in Texas.  We would like to expand on this topic as we find more information.

Henry C. Dethloff (1934-2019) has written a history of the Johnson Space Center called “Suddenly, Tomorrow Came.” He opened his book by writing about the recollections of then Senator Lyndon Johnson when the news of the Russian satellite Sputnik I flashed across the television screens in 1957.  Dethloff recounted Johnson’s impressions as he watched the coverage from his ranch in Texas.  Only a few months earlier, he had given a speech in which he declared that it would only be a short time until warheads could be delivered via intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The impact of the successful Russian launch of Sputnik I in October of 1957 served to underline Johnson’s point.

The spacecraft Sputnik I was relatively small by later standards.  It was about 58 centimeters in diameter and weighed only about 83.6 kilograms.  It has been described as resembling a beach ball with antennae.  The tiny spacecraft orbited the earth each 98 minutes.  The successful launch of Sputnik I was an important catalyst to fuel the United States’ drive to catch up to and surpass other nations in the race to space.  The Russians followed the launch of Sputnik I the following month with Sputnik II, a slightly larger craft but spacious enough to accommodate a dog.  The United States, lagging a bit behind, successfully launched Explorer I the following January 31, carrying a scientific payload that led to the discovery of the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth that are now known as the Van Allen belts, named after James Van Allen who was the principal investigator on the project.  From that point on, it seemed that the “space race” was in full swing.

Congress had quickly passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act in 1958.  Two years later, President Eisenhower called for an amendment to the Act.  In his proposal, Eisenhower hoped to see a transition from rocket research from the United States Army to NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  He urged that the law be revised to codify this change.  When enacted, the work that was being carried on by Dr. Wernher von Braun under the United States Army was shifted to the new administration, NASA.

The connection to Texas was expanded largely when the center, now known as the Johnson Space Center, was placed south of Houston, Texas.  It was established in 1961 and from it the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs were carried out.  According to NASA’s website, facilities were needed to house the Space Task Group.  In his historic speech on September 12, 1962, President John Kennedy had set out his plan to put a man on the Moon within the next ten years.  It seemed extremely ambitious at the time, but it was of course accomplished with the Apollo program.

The criteria for the site selection had included the requirement of an all weather airport, transportation access by water, a location where telecommunications access was already present, a ready supply of contractors and a relatively mild climate year round.  Houston met all of these requirements.  Also located near Houston was the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot that had an available military air field, helpful since many of the aircraft transporting key individuals and astronauts were military vehicles.  Houston was also within easy reach of several major universities including Texas A&M, University of Texas and Rice University.

America’s first program was Project Mercury which ran from 1958 to 1963.  It made six manned flights between 1961 and 1963 and was followed by Gemini, the first program to come under the management of the Houston facility.  The Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston was to become the lead center for future United States space missions involving astronauts. It was renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center on February 17, 1973 shortly after the death of President Johnson on January 22, 1973.


(Image credit: Johnson Space Center)

NASA’s Mission Control Center became a familiar sight on televised launch broadcasts, and has been where operations of all major manned space flight programs have been overseen since Gemini IV.  The Johnson Space Center celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2011 and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission in 2019.

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