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

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.

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray