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Cover Story: When the NASA Love Is Lost

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Illustration by Jesse Lenz
SpaceX completed another successful mission toting cargo to the International Space Station on Sunday. The launch was livestreamed from Cape Canaveral, but it was all focused in Florida and Johnson Space Center was never mentioned. There was a time this would have been unthinkable.

Check out our cover story: Houston's Space Problem: Johnson Space Center Has Lost Its Identity and Purpose

When JSC first opened in Houston it was the place to be. The people working there were going to send an astronaut from the Earth to the moon. They were going to find a way to send people to Mars. It all seemed possible because it had never been tried before. But that was then. Today JSC has been sidelined while the government funds commercial spaceflight companies and announces plans for manned missions to an asteroid in the 2020s and to Mars in the 2030s. People don't think about traveling in space the way they used to. "The romance of spaceflight has lost its glamour," Chris Kraft, the first director of Johnson Space Center, said.

Talk of the asteroid mission plans makes Kraft, who worked on Mercury, Apollo and the earliest efforts to send astronauts into space, impatient. "That's foolishness. That's not a manned mission. That's not going to rekindle the new breath of spring for manned spaceflight, for God's sake," Kraft, now 90, said, raising his voice and allowing more of his native Virginia drawl to slide through. "There are too many political forces at work to easily explain why the country doesn't have a space program that is both doable and affordable. We could do it if we wanted to. It's possible. But it's not happening."

Johnson Space Center was once the focus of the country, the heart of manned spaceflight, but since the end of the shuttle program in 2011, it has been left to flounder, Kraft said.

However, commercial companies like SpaceX appear to be thriving, and the federal government is touting commercial companies as the answer. Many are predicting that commercial spaceflight will be the future for manned spaceflight, but what will this mean for Johnson Space Center?

Read about it in this week's cover story.

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