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Why NASA’s Johnson Space Center is in Houston

Nov 8th, 2021

Among the first words said in outer space was none other than our very own city’s name. On April 13, 1970, Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert communicated a message to the mission control center, uttering the famous-but-erroneously-quoted words, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

That quote has become synonymous with both ironic understatement and space flight, but how did Houston get to be the center of NASA’s manned space flight programs?

Why NASA’s Johnson Space Center is in Houston

Why was NASA looking for a new location?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was officially formed by the federal government in 1958 in order to oversee the space program and any aeronautical research conducted by the United States. Just as it is today, NASA’s mission was to further space science through peaceful applications, such as exploring the solar system, researching complex astrophysics topics, better understanding our own planet and developing spacecraft and robotics to better continue that research. 

NASA has a wide range of mission directives and, within those, many different programs to help carry out those directives. And, of those programs, it’s likely that none are quite as popular as the manned spaceflight programs based right here in Houston, Texas. 

Back in 1958, one of the programs that was created along with NASA itself was the Space Task Group that was tasked with working on the human space exploration side of the space agency. This group of engineers, secretaries and mathematicians numbered just 45 when it first started out of Langley, Virginia, and the group worked on various spaceflight projects such as Project Mercury, as the United States raced the Soviet Union to win the Space Race

As the programs and projects involved in the Space Race grew more technical and more intense, talks began of moving the manned flight program to a larger facility. The Space Task Group was put under even more scrutiny in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy declared that the United States would be attempting to put man on the moon by the end of the decade, requiring the Space Task Group to bring on more workers and find more space. Thus began the hunt for a new facility to house the rapidly growing project. 

Why NASA chose Houston 

In order for the Manned Spacecraft Center, as it would be named, to meet the near-impossible goal of sending a man to the moon in a few years, the physical location needed to fulfill a laundry list of criteria that would help the organization run at full efficiency.

Here are a few of the criteria that NASA was looking for:

  • Water transportation: the water had to be ice-free so that the route would be accessible year-round, and suitable for barges so that large equipment could be brought in as easily as possible.
  • Air transportation: there had to be space for an airport so that equipment and people could be flown to the center, which also meant that the airport would be able to handle any and all weather conditions.
  • Proximity to resources: not only did this mean physical resources like parts and materials, but also a large pool of contractors, employees and experts to utilize.
  • Property size: the property had to cover at least one thousand acres.
  • Budget: running a space program is expensive, so the center had to be able to fit into the budget parameters outlined by the government. The location’s ease of access and cost of living contributed greatly to the budget. 
  • Attractive community: “attractive,” as in a community that nurtured the arts, sciences and inquisitive individuals. This included finding a location with a university or other higher education institution nearby.
  • Utilities: there had to be sufficient access to water and electricity nearby in order for the center to run. And there has to be a lot of water and electricity to run a space center!

There was originally a list of 23 potential locations that NASA considered based on their meeting the water and weather criteria alone, but the list was soon narrowed down to nine cities that met additional criteria and had some sort of federal facility — like a military installation — nearby. These were the final cities that made the short list:

  • Jacksonville, Florida
  • Tampa, Florida
  • Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Shreveport, Louisiana
  • Houston, Texas
  • Victoria, Texas
  • Corpus Christi, Texas
  • San Diego, California
  • San Francisco, California

A selection team visited all the sites and were met by local figures who presented the site and any pertinent information to the group. Following the tour and the discussion period, Houston was actually ranked second on the selection list behind Tampa and just ahead of San Francisco, as the MacDill Air Force Base in Florida was scheduled to close down and could be repurposed as the new space center. However, before any formal selection and decision could be made, the Air Force decided to not close MacDill Air Force Base, immediately bumping Houston up to first place.

NASA made it official on September 19, 1961 through a press release outlining the decision and the exact location of the center — a 1,000-acre parcel of land just southeast of Houston donated by Rice University. At the time, the land was nothing but a grassy field, so the first order of business in the construction of the space center was to herd away the cattle who grazed it. 

It took nearly two years of construction before the Manned Spacecraft Center opened its doors in September, 1963, and since then this Houston site has been the headquarters of every manned space flight program and project run through NASA. The rockets and shuttles themselves launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida (and here’s why!), but the control center and research facility is right here in Houston.

President Nixon renamed the center to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center on February 19, 1973 following the death of the former president and vice-president, as Johnson had been one of the sponsors of the original legislation that created NASA in 1958. 

Today, the Johnson Space Center is the center around which every human space mission since the Gemini IV mission, operating through the Mission Control Center. There is a visitor center attached to the Johnson Space Center, so if you’re interested in learning more about the space center and all the manned spaceflight projects NASA is or has been involved in, then head over and check it out! It’s not too far from our luxury Houston apartments, either!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/WikiImages

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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