Houston's Space Problem: Johnson Space Center Has Lost Its Identity and Purpose

George Abbey, former director of Johnson Space Center, thinks the facility needs to refocus on its space program.
Ashli Hill

The fake space shuttle, renamed Independence, arrived in Galveston in June 2012. People lined the docks and watched as workers hauled the inert, gleaming white thing as if it were a dead whale being tugged to shore. When it was decreed that Johnson Space Center would get the old shuttle replica NASA officials hired a towing company to move the craft up the Gulf Coast from Florida. It was massive, 122 feet long and 78 feet wide, built to convince Kennedy Space Center tourists they were climbing into a real shuttle, but the stubby wings were all show — it was never meant to fly.

For most cities, getting the fake shuttle would have been an honor, but this was Houston, Space City, the home of Johnson Space Center manned space flight. For more than 50 years, this was where astronauts trained, where missions were controlled. NASA was the leader in space exploration, and JSC was at the center of NASA. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared that NASA would have astronauts on the moon within a decade, and the agency made it happen in less than ten years. Now NASA has become a space program without direction, and JSC has become a shadow of itself.

Johnson Space Center was once the vibrant focus of a national space program that was going to see people on Mars before the end of this century. But manned space exploration, the thing in which Johnson specializes, has been sidelined in favor of targeting private companies like SpaceX to develop commercial space travel. Meanwhile, the funding and the bigger, choice projects are going to other centers that have more political cachet with the White House, like Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Marshall Space Center in Alabama. "Johnson used to be the place you wanted to be. If you wanted to work at the top of the space program, that was where you went," said one former NASA employee. "Now there's nothing going on there, and people are leaving in waves."

President Barack Obama canceled Constellation, former President George W. Bush's initiative to send astronauts to the moon. At the same time, he allowed the space shuttle program to end and started pouring a chunk of NASA's budget into developing commercial space flight. In the past few years, NASA's budget has been repeatedly slashed, some programs have been ended without warning, and others haven't received promised funding.

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has declared that his company is the future of space exploration. He is going to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, then to the moon and finally to Mars. He has said commercial spaceflight is the future. However, when Obama announced NASA would be focusing on commercial spaceflight, retired veteran astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan spoke out against that decision. The trio said the decision made no sense and would waste years of already completed work and $10 billion already invested in Constellation. Private enterprise would take longer to get to the same point and then ahead, they argued.

The official word from Johnson Space Center is that the facility is more relevant than ever. It has people working on robotics and perfecting Orion, the craft that will supposedly take astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s. And Houston officials express no doubt that the center will continue to be a vibrant part of the city's identity and industry.

But there are longtime observers who see a different path. There are fewer employees buzzing around Johnson's massive campus in Clear Lake. Roughly half the buildings at the center have been torn down or consolidated in the past couple of years. "These aren't the signs of a business that is expanding," former JSC director George Abbey said. The center's very identity and purpose are being lost, according to these people. The entire space program is rudderless, Abbey said, lacking in bold leadership and without a clear direction. "Kennedy understood the value of a show, of making a point. Humans to the moon in ten years, and that would show the world that we were leaders. There wasn't national consensus, but the country wanted to show we could beat the Russians, and the country adopted that goal and we did it."

Now the United States is dependent on Russia to get our astronauts to the International Space Station and is looking to commercial companies like SpaceX to provide the next craft to send astronauts into space from the United States. And Johnson Space Center is being lost in the shuffle.

See what's going on at Johnson Space Center today in our slideshow, "What Remains at Johnson Space Center."

On the third floor of the Christopher C. Kraft Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center is a cavernous room that looks exactly the way it did in the 1960s. It stands empty now, a museum piece preserved to show tourists what it looked like when space launches were conducted in the days of Apollo and the early years of the space shuttle. Once the room was a hive of activity, with flight controllers sipping coffee and exhaling plumes of cigarette smoke as they oversaw missions.


When Armstrong walked on the moon, his voice crackled through radio waves and was heard here, echoing through Mission Control. This was where everyone wanted to be back then, the center of the action, a window to the universe. The people working in this room oversaw the best days at NASA and the worst: the shock of the Apollo 1 fire, the miracle that was Apollo 13 they saw the first astronaut in orbit with Apollo 8 and talked through the receiver as Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. They witnessed the sickening loss of Challenger. It all happened in this room.

The Manned Spacecraft Center program came to Texas in 1961, and the Clear Lake facility opened in 1963. Then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had a hand in bringing the center to Houston, of course, but despite the political horse trading, the city and the space center were a good fit. Houston was a blue-collar city, eager to grow and establish itself, and NASA needed that kind of energy.

In December 1968, Chris Kraft, NASA's first flight director and the first director of Johnson Space Center, stopped as he was walking between buildings on Johnson's sprawling new campus, tipped his head back and looked up at the moon. He studied the marbled white orb. "By the time the moon looks like this again, we'll have already sent a man there and back again," he thought.

Nowadays, the whole place is beginning to have a calcified feel about it, though people like Kraft are loath to admit it. He, like many who have worked at JSC, is fiercely loyal to both its standing and its reputation, and he's careful to emphasize that he has absolute faith in the people at Johnson and in its future. Still, even Kraft admits that something has changed in recent years. "Johnson Space Center was the key element for NASA in manned space flight," Kraft said. "The best ideas, the new ideas, the ways to do something different, the way to get to the moon, the way to overcome problems and dangers — it usually came from Johnson Space Center. And that, for God's sake, is missing today. They think they're still doing it, maybe, but they're not."

Back then, the drive behind the space program was all about beating the Soviet Union. Fear of the USSR getting to space before we did translated into ample funding — the most ever provided to NASA — during the Apollo years. NASA was part of the discretionary budget, which meant it was vulnerable to Congressional cuts, but the agency was untouchable in the early days of the space program. And Johnson Space Center was the focus of NASA.

It was something to be proud of, the heart of human space exploration right in the Bayou City's backyard. City officials knew the value of that identity — they threw the astronauts a parade and an indoor barbecue at the Sam Houston Coliseum when they first arrived in 1962. Houstonians registered their appreciation of JSC and the thousands of jobs it created — not to mention the establishment of the entire Clear Lake area — when they cheered for teams named after their new neighbor, the Astros in the Astrodome and the Rockets.

And for years, there was always a Texas politician in Washington — Reps. Jack Brooks or Tom DeLay or Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — who understood that swinging to the fences to cover Johnson was a key part of the game.

In April 2010, President Obama made a speech at Kennedy Space Center outlining a new direction for the space program, one that would emphasize private commercial companies in "the next chapter in this story." He never mentioned Johnson Space Center. When it was announced later that year that Constellation had been canceled and the space shuttle would remain canceled as well, Mayor Annise Parker went to Washington, D.C., to meet with the president and try to talk him out of shelving the Constellation project — the end of both Constellation and the shuttle would mean massive job losses at Johnson. She invited Obama to visit both the center and Houston, but to no avail.

Obama hasn't visited Johnson Space Center since taking office in 2009. At the beginning of April, he was in Houston overnight for a fundraiser, and the facility wasn't on his schedule.


There's no local politician working for Johnson today as in the past, Kraft said. Hutchison's replacement, Sen. Ted Cruz, hasn't shown much interest since going to Washington. "You know, I've tried over and over to set up a meeting with Ted Cruz to talk about Johnson, but I can't seem to make it happen," Kraft said.

Officially, Houston is optimistic and committed to Johnson's future, mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said. "Houston will play a lead role in commercial space operations in the 21st century," she said via email. She also noted that because of Johnson, Houston has the right workforce and facilities to be a part of the commercial space travel industry.

Johnson spokesman Kelly Humphries has a similarly sunny view of the center's future, including the continuing work on Orion and planned manned missions to an asteroid and Mars. "We are busier than ever," he stated.

Kraft, Abbey and other longtime NASA people have noted that the only thing more farfetched than the asteroid program is the administration's insistence that NASA will send someone to Mars in the 2030s.

Elon Musk, the South Africa-born Canadian businessman behind PayPal and Tesla Motors, created Space Exploration Technologies, popularly known as SpaceX, in 2002, a company aimed at conducting commercial rocket launches that would send people into space cheaply enough to eventually generate a profit.

The company has sucked up a lot of Musk's own money, more than $100 million, over the years, but he has said repeatedly that he will keep investing because he believes in what it is doing. He has even announced that he intends to go to Mars and die there someday.

Last year, Musk spoke at SXSW in Austin about his passion for space. He's in his early forties but still has the face of a boy wonder, and he grins when he talks about space travel. "I'd be doing this even if I knew there was no chance of me going to Mars, because I think it's important we're on a path to getting there," he said, adding that he'd go only if he knew SpaceX would be healthy and that he would actually be able to get there. "I want to die on Mars, but I don't want to die on impact."

SpaceX is the flashiest of a handful of companies that started working with NASA in 2008 to create commercial launches to space. Originally, the money saved by scrapping the shuttle program was to go to Constellation. Instead, that funding — more than $6 billion — was dumped into the work of companies including Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX.

The move was praised by some and lamented by others. Most notably, the trio of astronauts — Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon; Lovell, who commanded Apollo 13; and Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, issued a joint statement published by MSNBC just after the announcement of the switch to emphasizing commercial spaceflight.

Ending the shuttle program without providing another clear direction in its place would be disastrous, the former astronauts wrote. NASA would be required to depend on Russia for access to the International Space Station, and its own abilities to conduct space exploration were sure to wither and atrophy. They argued that while Obama claimed that NASA was going to be headed back to the moon and then Mars in his administration's plan, in reality the agency would lose all the skills needed to get there. Commercial space flight was not the answer, they argued.

"For the United States, the leading space-faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without a low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature," the statement read. "Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity. America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space. If it does, we should initiate a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal."

The budget cuts have continued. NASA received $17.6 billion in funding in 2014 and requested about $17.5 billion for 2015, knocking its budget down about $180 million. When the astronaut program was in full swing, there were 149 active astronauts. Today that number has dwindled to just 43, with a class of eight new rookies selected in 2013. They can get to the International Space Station only by hitching a $50 million ride on the Russian Soyuz capsule. The tiny craft — with a design that has gone basically unchanged since the 1960s — has space for three people in it.


Alex Ignatiev, a physics professor at the University of Houston, has been working with Johnson Space Center for commercial purposes since the 1980s. The shuttle program was in its prime back then, and NASA didn't really need commercial space transportation, but that isn't the case now, he said. NASA needs companies like SpaceX, and companies like SpaceX will be reliant on the government for years to come to actually make commercial spaceflight successful, Ignatiev said. He acknowledged that there will be risks when SpaceX starts flying astronauts but noted that there are always risks in spaceflight.

However, former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, now also a UH professor, argued that SpaceX and commercial flight are being touted as a solution but that the money being diverted from NASA to fund these endeavors will cost space exploration in the long run. "Industry is not poised to do the kind of research and development we need to do for space exploration," she said.

For all the talk of his dedication to space exploration, Musk is still taking money from the government, Dunbar said. It's possible for commercial companies and NASA to work together successfully — they did it with the shuttle — but the work SpaceX is doing so far doesn't appear to involve that kind of partnership, she said. "What I see Elon doing is driving a wedge between the two. And if people stop valuing NASA, they won't fund it," she said, speaking at a rapid-fire pace. "The nation has one human spaceflight program, and it's systematically being dismantled. Why isn't anyone concerned?"

SpaceX is planning to build a launch pad in Brownsville. That facility won't necessarily draw much away from Johnson right now, Ignatiev said, but that could change in the future. Even when SpaceX starts working on manned spaceflight, the bulk of the commercial crew program will go to Kennedy Space Center, not Johnson, Abbey pointed out.

Ignatiev acknowledged that it will probably be years before manned commercial spaceflight is truly up and running. He can't imagine a world without JSC, he said — no one can, especially not the people who have worked there — but he admitted there will probably be hard times ahead. It's a problem of supply and demand — Johnson won't be training as many people because it doesn't need them with its dwindling number of missions. By the time commercial spaceflight is ready to hire more astronauts, they may not be there, at least not as many as in past years.

"Unless the U.S. starts getting some ways of our own to get into space instead of taking rides with Russia, it's going to be a tough time to keep the manned space program at Johnson," Ignatiev said. He hastened to add that he believes Johnson will always be needed, but without a way to get into space, the manned space program that is Johnson's entire reason for being is left without a purpose. "In the long term, man will be in space," Ignatiev said. "We will have a manned space program, but in the short term there will be a lull because right now we have no way to get there."

The 40-foot-deep pool where astronauts are taught to walk in their spacesuits to prepare for working on other worlds used to be constantly packed with people, but again, fewer astronauts are training there these days, Gayle Frere, a longtime public relations contractor at the center, said. Frere has been associated with Johnson Space Center since she and her ex-husband moved to Houston in 1962. As a contractor, she's not an official NASA spokesperson.

Frere walked past the pool and up to the control center on a Monday, stopping at a poster that displayed the 2012 astronaut class. Running a finger over the poster, she studied their faces. "He's gone, she's gone, he's gone, he won't be flying again, she's gone, he's gone — they're leaving and not all of them are being replaced," she said. Some astronauts have moved over to management, others were laid off with the end of the shuttle program and some have left for commercial opportunities, she said. "We're not as big and we're not flying as many people as we used to since the shuttle, so we're not training as many, either," she said.

When the federal government shut down last fall, most of the 3,000 federal workers at Johnson were furloughed, and more than 10,000 contract workers stood to be furloughed as their contracts with the federal government ran out of money. Furlough — that was a scary time. "Everyone was sent home," Frere said. "People that could come up with workarounds could get paid a little, but it was a hard time."

According to furlough guidelines, only employees deemed "essential" could continue working. At Johnson Space Center, only the astronauts on the International Space Station, the people at Mission Control who support the ISS and a handful of contract workers were allowed to remain on the job. Outside of keeping the ISS running, the work at Johnson ground to a halt. However, Space Center Houston stayed open. The Independence made its post-renovation debut in the middle of the furlough.


When NASA officials first made plans to move the shuttle replica to Houston, they were going to remove the wings to make it easier to transport. Someone at NASA vetoed the idea, noting that the image of a wingless shuttle heading to Johnson Space Center might send the wrong message. Once the fake shuttle arrived, it took a year to remodel the thing to "museum-quality" standards.

The Independence was set up last year outside Space Center Houston, next door to Johnson. It looks just like a real shuttle, inside and out, but it's not. Vandals promptly tagged the shuttle with racial and political slurs in black spray paint down the side. One read: "Houston, we are the problem."

See what's going on at Johnson Space Center today in our slideshow, "What Remains at Johnson Space Center."

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