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Race to the Moon | Article

Mission Control, Houston


"Our arrival into Houston was not terribly glamorous. ... But when we arrived, we arrived to an area that was really not a commercial area. It had been a Girl Scout camp and it had been an area where people went for the summer. But this was now going to be the home of the space program. And it was pretty amazing to me that this little highway that was called 'Farm-to-Market 528' and later became NASA 1, could be the spot where this advanced technology would take place."
— Valerie Anders, wife of Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders

Manned Spacecraft Center
NASA had always been managed from Langley Field near Washington, D.C. But the moon landing President John Kennedy envisioned required a huge expansion that was not possible at Langley. NASA managers realized they needed a new home for the escalating space effort, the facility that would become known as the Manned Spacecraft Center.

Money and Politics
Many employees and senior officials at NASA were happy with their headquarters in Virginia, but the Manned Spacecraft Center was going to spend a lot of federal dollars and there were politics to consider. Political maneuvering was a forte of James Webb, the NASA administrator, who asked Bob Gilruth, who would be directing the new center, "What has [Virginia Senator] Harry Byrd ever done for you?" California and Texas had powerful politicians who supported NASA. Among the several sites that were suitable, Webb chose Mare Island, California.

Johnson Picks Texas
The recommendation went to the chairman of President Kennedy's National Space Council, Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson overruled Webb's decision and declared that the Manned Spacecraft Center would be situated in Houston, Texas, the sixth largest city in the U.S. at the time (and not coincidentally also the home seat of the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee).

Making the Decision
However, NASA had just purchased eighty-eight thousand acres next to Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the launch infrastructure already existed. Johnson argued that Cape Canaveral was overcrowded with military rockets and declared that mission control should be sited at least 125 miles from the launch site. Florida partisans countered with Tampa. Johnson came back with a determination that the control center should be 250 miles from launch. The deputy director of the Space Task Group described the siting process: "It's as though you went through a maze, knowing all the time what door you were going to come out."


Donated Land
NASA asked that land be donated to the effort and Johnson's friends at Humble Oil gave a thousand acres to Rice University, provided the university lease the land to NASA for 99 years. Seven hundred engineers and their families moved from Virginia to Texas.

Simulators, Laboratories and Computers
The Manned Spacecraft Center consisted of administrative buildings, simulators, laboratories to study lunar samples (and to quarantine astronauts) and two identical mission control rooms so that one could prepare for an upcoming flight even as the other was in use for spacecraft in flight (a third, backup mission control was also built in Bermuda). There was also a huge space for computers. Historian Andrew Chaikin put it in perspective: "One of the things that they were going to have to do to make the mission work was get all their computer software together. We tend to take computing power for granted today. But in those days, mission control needed a whole basement full of computers to navigate and keep track of the spacecraft and you know, all the tracking data where they would home in on its radio signal and by very slight changes in the radio signals' frequency, they could detect the motion of the spacecraft, whether it was precisely on track."

In 1973, the Manned Spacecraft Center was renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.

Contractors Nationwide
Texas had won the prize of mission control, but contractors for the Apollo missions were located in virtually all fifty states. The Saturn 5 rocket was built at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The command and service modules were provided by North American Rockwell in Downey, California. IBM built computers in New York and Draper Labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology programmed them. The Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina simulated the position of stars on various missions, and so on. Apollo was truly a national effort.

A Huge Team
Frank Borman was one of the astronauts who visited contractors all around the country. "I can remember going through a factory at midnight. We spent a lot of time going through factories and talking to people about zero defects, and one wonderful woman must have been a grandma (I bet she weighed 300 pounds), she grabbed me and hugged me and gave me a kiss and said, 'You don't worry, we're all on the same team and we're all going to do our job.'"

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