Moon Shot

Bold vision, resources and politics helped Houston

become the U.S. home of human spaceflight

The competition for NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in 1961 was one that Houston and its civic, business and political leaders were determined to win for the honor, prestige and high-tech jobs such a prize would bring to the city.

Houston’s historic role as home of U.S. human spaceflight is due to many benefactors, but four individuals stand out for their roles at the birth of the program: President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, U.S. Rep. Albert Thomas and Houston business leader George R. Brown.

Space City U.S.A.

50+ years after welcoming NASA, Houston continues

to celebrate its connections to the U.S. space program

The daring and ambitious goal of putting a man on the moon captured the nation’s imagination. Nowhere was that more evident than in Houston as the city welcomed astronauts, engineers and “rocket scientists” with open arms.


Some Houston connections to the space program are obvious like the naming of the Houston Astros and the Houston Astrodome. And, when the NBA Rockets moved to Houston in 1971 the name was a perfect fit.


Other connections between the space program and Houston are hidden in plain sight, like the patches on every Houston police officer’s uniform that have proudly proclaimed “Space City U.S.A.” since the mid-1960s.

Houston: First Word from the Moon

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”


Perhaps it was destiny that Houston was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon by Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969.


Eight years earlier, Houston had been selected as the home of the new Manned Spacecraft Center.


Out of this world research

Houston area universities and companies have supported NASA’s mission to leverage space technology

“For All Mankind”

From the early days of the U.S. space program there was recognition that strong educational institutions would play a pivotal role in the program’s success.


In his memo to President Kennedy recommending Houston for the Manned Spacecraft Center, NASA Administrator James Webb noted that the agency was strongly interested in collaborating with educational institutions in the region, including Rice University, the University of Houston, Baylor College of Medicine and others.


Over the years, the Johnson Space Center has managed numerous research programs at Texas universities and institutions. In 2016, for example, JSC was responsible for more than $18 million in university research programs as well as almost $12 million in Small Business Innovative Research grants.

NASA’s home on Clear Lake

Johnson Space Center transformed a quiet, rural area

into a vibrant community

While other cities and regions develop and evolve relatively slowly over many decades, there is an obvious and clear line of demarcation for the Clear Lake area: September 19, 1961, the day that NASA formally announced that the area had been selected as the new home of what is today the Johnson Space Center.


Previously, the unassuming tracts of rice fields, cattle ranches and oil fields were indistinguishable from thousands of other acres along the Texas Gulf Coast and were often described as a collection of “sleepy fishing villages”.

Prior to NASA’s decision, the Clear Lake area had a population of 6,520. By the late 1960s, the area’s population had skyrocketed to 45,000. Today, it boasts a population of more than 140,000.

Heavenly inspiration

In our search for knowledge and meaning, mankind has been inspired through the ages by the heavens above

The heavens have mesmerized and inspired mankind since the beginning of time. 


Alone in the darkness we have tried to make sense of the world around us. In the process, we have been inspired to create:


  • science and mathematics to try to instill order and logic;

  • religions to try to bring meaning and purpose to life; and

  • art, music and movies to try to capture and reflect what our eyes see all around us and what our imagination creates.


Houston: the next giant leap

Regardless of the ultimate destination, Houston aims to play a major role in human space research and exploration

For those watching Apollo 11 land on the moon and Neil Armstrong take “a giant leap for mankind” in July 1969 few if any would have been able to successfully predict what the U.S. space program would look like over the next 10 years, much less the past half-century.

Houston has two key advantages in the next phase of space exploration. 


First, if the U.S. continues to send humans into space then the Johnson Space Center is likely to continue its historic role as the lead NASA center for human space flight.

Regardless of the destination – the International Space Station, the Moon, asteroids or Mars – any crewed mission is likely to involve long-duration flights. This will require more research to ensure the health of the astronauts, which leads to Houston’s second distinct advantage: the world-class institutions of the Texas Medical Center.

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© 2019 Ray Viator and Ray Viator Photography

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