Space Odyssey

Tom Moser wants to put Texas on the map as a commercial launch pad for cargo-carrying rockets

Besides, Moser is not removing anyone from contention, or so he says. He is leaving it up to the individual regions to voluntarily step aside. In another corny but cunning management move, Moser has declared that the consultant report is to help each region understand its qualifications, to better determine whether to continue bidding for the spaceport. It's self-assessment, he said, not a cutting of the roster.

Chris Kraft, who was Moser's boss as director of the Johnson Space Center from 1972 to 1982, said Moser is one of those 500 or so engineers who actually knows how to manage people.

"Engineers notoriously are idiots when it comes to management," said Kraft, who is retired in Clear Lake. "They can't write, can't talk and don't understand how to get people to do things. The ones that come along that have the capability to do all of those things are not easy to come by."

At NASA, Moser gained experience dealing with prima donnas of all varieties. Contractors to the Apollo and shuttle programs had their own narrow objectives and agendas. Engineers and scientists from Stanford, Cal Tech and MIT arrogantly criticized NASA's work. And politicians, of course, knew that they knew best.

"Everyone thought they knew what had to be done, and most of the time they didn't know what the hell they were talking about," Kraft said.

Today, Moser has to deal with a Pecos County official in momentary crisis because he mistakenly told his constituents back home that the $14,300 study cost would be refunded if the Fort Stockton site didn't win the Texas spaceport derby. Pecos County Commissioner Gregg McKenzie has a reprieve, however, because Fort Stockton is still in contention.

Admitting that several months ago the only thing he knew about future commercial space travel was from what he had seen on the Discovery Channel, McKenzie says the idea of space launches from a cow pasture in West Texas isn't as nutty as it sounds. Fort Stockton survives on ranching and oil. The biggest outside industry there is a test track where Firestone checks the performance of its tires. But the place is perfect for a spaceport, he says. Population is sparse (9,072 in Fort Stockton and 16,144 in Pecos County). The land is flat. The weather is predictable. Air traffic is light. And the petrochemicals needed by VentureStar are nearby.

"Aw, for a while people were kind of skeptical," McKenzie admits. "People around here, they laughed at me."

Then he told them about the 2,000 to 3,000 jobs that a spaceport could create and the potential of hundreds, even thousands of tourists visiting to watch the launches. ["Just like at Cape Canaveral," McKenzie says.] And they got as pumped up as he did.

"We're definitely in the scientific age," he said. "I'm 65 years old, and I remember the Flash Gordon days when I was a kid. I think we've already passed them days."

Jobs are also on the minds of the folks pushing the spaceport in Brazoria County, but economic revolution is of interest to the boosters from South Texas, where the unemployment rate, as high as 16 percent in some areas, soars higher than anywhere else in the state.

"We realize it's a long shot, but we have a responsibility to pursue it as far as we can," said Shirley Clowers, president of the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce and liaison to a coalition formed to lure the spaceport to South Texas. "This sort of thing can change the entire complexion of South Texas because of the potential for spinoff industry and job creation."

Moser has helped her see that potential. "He's definitely a marketing person," Clowers said. "Those of us not in the aerospace industry don't understand what the possibilities are. And he does."

Back in the summer of 1969, Tom Moser understood that a limited number of creative possibilities existed in displaying the American flag on the moon. His design would stretch the banner along the length of a collapsible aluminum rod, which would be pulled to extend straight out horizontally from the tip of the flagpole.

"That was the only way to get the flag to stand out, because there's no atmosphere up there," Moser said.

But the aluminum extension rod had been covered with an anti-corrosive coating that did not take well to the vacuum-like atmosphere of the moon. When the astronauts tried to pull the rod to its full extension, it stuck. And that's why the flag on the moon looks like it is waving in the breeze, even though the moon has no wind. It's because the flag could not be stretched to its full extension along the stuck aluminum rod. "After that, we made sure all of the flags looked exactly the same way," Moser said. "But the first one was an error."

Again, what looked like disaster for Tom Moser turned out okay. His plans worked out just fine. He's counting on that happening again, with all of Texas watching.

E-mail Stuart Eskenazi at eskenazi@ibm.net.

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