So Long, Cosmic Cowboys

All right, men, we've got this manned spacecraft center, see? And we've got to figure out what to do with it, understand?

Now is the time to take longer strides, time for a great new American enterprise, time for this Nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth…space is the new Ocean, and we must choose to sail upon it.
John F. Kennedy, May 1961

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth:
For the first heaven and the first earth were passed away;
And there was no more sea.
The Book of Revelations

I’ve got the farts again…
Astronaut John Young, flight of Apollo 16

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

There it was! The very first word to come sifting through the heavens from the very first man on the Moon! Perhaps it was Sam Houston’s ultimate revenge, the wily old iconoclast with Cherokee magic echoing his retort on all the houses of his enemies (will John C. Calhoun’s name ever be spoken on the surface of the Moon?) from across a century and a quarter-million miles.

He had help, of course, from some worthy heirs. Back in 1961, Lyndon Johnson, then Vice-President and chairman of the Space Council, and Houston Congressman Albert Thomas, chairman, as chance would have it, of the very same House Appropriations subcommittee that passed on the NASA budget, were both laboring in behalf of a Houston site, lobbying the members of NASA’s Site Selection Team who were searching about for a logical (or, barring that, profitable) location for their soon-to-be-funded Manned Spacecraft Center. “The road to the Moon,” Thomas reportedly told NASA Administrator James Webb, “lies through Houston.” An unlikely trajectory in most contexts but in the halls of Congress, where Thomas was right on. Houston it would be.

Virginia congressmen howled about how the Space Task Group—the organization then in charge of manned space flight—would be uprooted from its homey abode at Langley Air Force Base, and California and Massachusetts congressmen wailed about how the obvious logic behind choosing their own high-technology states had been overlooked (Texas! My God, they’re not serious! Texas?), while Johnson and Thomas, buttressed by old Sam Houston’s Indian destiny, sat back and whistled while the deal went down. Houston it was.

Houstonians, of course, were appropriately joyful at their own selection (you haven’t heard anyone mention Dallas from the Moon yet, have you?). Typically unrestrained, they set about naming everything from baseball teams to underground newspapers after various permutations and combinations of the theme of space travel. The Mayor called it “the greatest thing that’s ever happened to Texas,” the Chamber of Commerce president compared the windfall to the building of the Ship Channel or the discovery of oil, Rice University opened up the nation’s first Space Science Department, “Spacetown, U.S.A.” bumperstickers appeared everywhere, and things just generally went to hell in a self-congratulatory orgy of Buck Rogers adulation and maudlin euphoria.

And the Astronauts! Jesus, the Astronauts are moving to Houston! Coming to the biggest up-from-the-bootstraps boomtown in the world, where Horatio Alger Lives and if you’re cagey enough, ambitious enough, tight-fisted and stout-hearted enough, you can Make It, climb to the top of the world and ride in monogrammed Cadillacs to the Petroleum Club. To a town founded and built by a succession of pioneers and single-minded monument-builders came the Astronauts, tight-lipped, square-jawed and blue-eyed, dedicated patriots, fit heirs to the mantle of Jesse H. Jones and Glenn McCarthy, a species of Cosmic Cowboy storing up energy to blaze a trail to the Moon.

River Oaks ladies had a new category of invitees to balance out parties with heart surgeons and oilmen, a new breed of luncheon speaker found the Rotary Club circuit and annual charities discovered the ultimate figurehead. Frank Sharp (remember him?) finessed an abortive deal to give them all fully-furnished homes, somebody invented the yearly Moon Ball on the roof of the Warwick, society columnists recruited Astronaut-watching stringers, and the sheriff made them all deputies. They were, well, welcome.

None of this should be taken to mean that the Manned Spacecraft Center is really in Houston. Some 25 miles down Interstate 45, closer actually to Galveston than to downtown Houston and about the same distance from the latter as, say, Tomball, was a barren, swampy flatland where you could still smell marsh gas and chase armadillos as late as Apollo 8. That’s where it is.

It had all once belonged to “Silver Dollar” Jim West, a hard-knuckled, turn-of-the-century gutfighter who clawed his way to millions of dollars in cattle, timber and oil holdings; and who was taken, in his later years, to flipping silver dollars to pedestrian peasants from his limousine. In 1930, Silver Dollar Jim’s family sold the West Ranch, all 30,000 acres of it, to the Humble Oil and Refining Company for about $300 an acre. Neither the value nor the population increased appreciably in the next 30 years, the general worthlessness of the land being surpassed only by its flatness. Then, in 1961, a burst of corporate generosity was to reverse everyone’s bad fortune.

When word came filtering down from Washington that Houston was in the running for the new Manned Spacecraft Center, Humble ceded to Rice University 1,020 acres of the old West Ranch with the understanding that it would be given to NASA if they decided to put their center there (there’s a law somewhere that says corporations, unlike us folks, can’t just give things to their government—thus the Rice Connection). Sweetening the pot, you might say.

Within 18 months of the September, 1961, announcement of Houston’s selection, land in the area was going for $5,000 to $10,000 an acre, land speculators were falling over each other to buy up what Humble didn’t already own (one cheerful story made the rounds about the man and wife—both janitors at Clear Lake High School—who unloaded their wind-blasted farm for a quarter million dollars), and developers rushed in to build motels, drugstores, townhouses, gas stations, Stop’ N’Goes—all the amenities of civilized society. Subdivisions sprouted up everywhere, office buildings, shopping centers…Humble went wild

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