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?

March 1973By Comments

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 trying to fill up those extra 28,000 leftover acres; they formed the Friendswood Development Corporation to build a whole new town—Clear Lake City (named, imaginatively enough, after nearby Clear Lake). 200,000 people, they said, going to be bigger than Salt Lake City. Then they announced the Bayport project, a super-industrial park up against the Ship Channel and tied into the vast pipeline network strung along the Gulf Coast.

When the first Bayport plant to go on-stream promptly blew itself back into marsh gas, nobody even stopped for a deep breath before starting to build it all over again. The confidence was that high; Clear Lake City was going to be “the City of the Future,” by damn, and there was no stopping it. The relentless juggernaut of Progress had been fired up, and residents saw no end to it. “In five years this area will be covered solid with homes and industries,” predicted a local developer, in 1965.

There seemed to be no arguing with him. The MSC, originally pegged at $60 million, had already cost thrice that and they still weren’t finished with it, scientists and legions of engineers were buying homes as fast as they were built, a hundred aerospace corporations had opened up branch offices with more on the way, and a huge new “technology research park” built by (guess who) Humble gave promise of a never-ending nirvana of computers and Progress.

It was the halcyon days of NASA, too. Everything it touched turned to Success. Astronauts replaced baseball players as the Modern Hero, flights followed one after another with implacable flawlessness, accompanied by live-telecast fantasies and full-color spacewalks, NASA budgets whooshed through Congress by unanimous votes and we were Winning the Race to the Moon and wondering what to conquer next. Mars? Venus? Name a planet, and NASA had a program. “It’s almost too good to be true,” they said.

Indeed. Then the nation turned the corner into the late sixties and like everything else, NASA turned sour. People with other projects cast covetous eyes on the NASA budget and some had the temerity to vote against it. Lyndon Johnson was trapped in a war that Sam Houston wouldn’t have touched, and government money grew tight. The PhD pilgrimage to Clear Lake slowed, then halted; the big aerospace corporations never got past building just branch offices and the research park went begging.

In January, 1967, three men died a gruesome death in a faulty capsule and Project Apollo was stillborn on Pad 34; “zero defects” became a sick joke and chancres of self-doubt mottled the smooth face of confidence. The budget was first whittled, then chiseled, then cleaved with a meat ax by Democrats and Republicans alike, the word “Moondoggle” entered the language and all the rebuttals about “spin-off”, transistor radios and Teflon frying pans fell against the sterile ear of cynicism.

Even in the glory-core of the Manned Spacecraft Center there was dissension: astronauts questioning policy (one of them even retaining a lawyer and threatening to sue), scientist vs engineer vs manager, military vs civilian, Space Heroes turned one against another, some of them resigning, resigning from the nether world of schoolboy idolatry, Moon Balls and space walks. Cynicism malignant in the very heart of confidence. The Spirit of the Indian Nation, catching at last the sixties wind of change and militance, had risen up to reclaim its own, the ghosts of the Cherokee trapped the Cosmic Cowboys in the box canyon of bad karma.

Sam Houston, though, was not to be denied. If projects and planets were lopped from the NASA budget like so many demented appendages, the Apollo program was spared. America was hell-bent on going to the Moon, and there was no slowing destiny’s railroad. At the Manned Spacecraft Center, chastened but not bobbled, technology set about greasing the rails.

FROM THE MOMENT IT CLEARS the launch tower at Cape Kennedy, Apollo 17, like all its space-bound predecessors, is the child of the Manned Spacecraft Center, subject to the electric whims of all the computers, dials, monitors, switches and gauges concentrated here. And there are the men. They are calling it Man’s Last Mission to the Moon, the net sum of years of labor and tinkering, and they sit on the leading edge of melancholy like the last week before high school graduation; for the Cosmic Cowboys, it’s the Last Roundup.

For the moment though, they are busily trying to rescue their voluminous flight plan from the inconveniences caused by a three-hour launch delay. Before the ship has completed its first orbit, the men at Mission Control obligingly inform the press that all the questions and vagaries resulting from the tardy launch have been answered and resolved—before you can utter the magic words, “slightly-altered-trans-lunar-injection-burn,” Apollo 17 is back on its 410-page, 13-day schedule, punctually rocketing through the cosmos like one of Mussolini’s trains.

Others at the MSC have more difficulty with the delay.

The combined strength of Boy Scout Troops 300, 873, 952 and 970, all from the NASA area and totalling a veritable Merit Badge Hall of Fame, have been granted permission to raise the Mission Flag. The Mission Flag—the Apollo Pennant in tandem with an all-weather American Flag—has been hoisted by a team of MSC security guards at the instant of lift-off of every manned Apollo mission and flown until the moment of splashdown, safe-guarding Apollo’s karma while away from home, an earth-bound talisman at Mission Control.

The Boy Scouts are dutifully arrayed around the flagpole at 8:50, watching through the last minutes for the signal to launch The Flag, to add their energies to Man’s Last Mission to the Moon. When the countdown freezes at 30 seconds, and a two hour delay is announced, the Scouts are caught unprepared. Tomorrow is, after all, a Schoolday, and it is fast approaching Boy Scout Bedtime. Undaunted, in the best Boy Scout tradition, they run up The Flag anyway, then disperse for home. The security guards hustle out to repair the situation, bringing down The Flag to await the time for its proper raising. The karmic implications of hoisting The Mission Flag and, worse yet, lowering (crashing?) it, even before the mission itself has begun, are undwelt upon, left to repercuss quietly through the crisp night air at Technology Central.

It has been like everything else at the Manned Spacecraft Center: the technical problems are easily resolved, it’s the human ones that are hard to deal with.

ON THE CHILL, BLUSTERY December day before the Apollo 17 launch, there were union picket lines strung across the two main gates to the Manned Spacecraft Center, the result of a strike against a NASA contractor that had ordered wage cuts. MSC officials prevailed upon the union to pull down their pickets for the duration of the flight so as not to tarnish the luster of Man’s Last Mission to the Moon, but the bitterness remained just below the high-gloss finish of Technology.

Chuck Wells, business agent for Local 1786 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, calls the practices of NASA contractors “totally without compassion, the rottenest bunch of people I’ve ever dealt with.” Far from blaming budget cutbacks, Wells puts the unemployment monkey squarely on the back of Corporate Management: “When you’re gonna lose your job on a budget cut, you know a long time in advance, six months or a year or so, and you can do something with that.

“But the longest notice you ever get from the contractors here is three days. Hell, I’ve seen people get it in three hours. They just flak you; it’s terrible. They could tell you in three months if they wanted to. Hell, they bid these contracts on a man-days basis, and they know when they’re gonna run over on their costs.” [note: Wells made exception for the Lockheed Corporation who, he said, “tries at least to be square with you.”]

The IAMAW represents workers at the MSC who are employed by private industry under NASA contract. Personnel employed directly by the MSC are federal employees who are accorded, in theory, job security by the Civil Service. “Lotta nonsense, that civil service protection,” says W.G. Folkes, president of Local 2284 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the non-compulsory AFL-CIO affiliate union that seeks to represent federal workers. “Firing people around here is a ridiculous way to save money. It isn’t civil servant manpower that’s costing the government money, it’s these huge expenses and cost over-runs in purchasing and contracting.

“When word comes down from the OMB (Office of Management and Budget for reductions in force, all they do is fire a civil servant and replace him with contract personnel—sometimes in the very same desk. Contractors don’t even have to furnish pencils and paper clips, just bodies, and their people don’t have to come up with the qualifications that a government employee has to have. It’s all a political scheme to delude the public into thinking that there is a small federal work force, and it’s a completely unfair way to deprive people of their employment.”

Notwithstanding the discomfort and evident hardships involved, the Manned Spacecraft Center still avoided the economic debacle that befell other outposts in the NASA empire. In Michoud, Louisiana, site for test and assembly of the huge Saturn booster, more people were thrown out of work in two years than had ever found it at the MSC. Brevard County, Florida, the formerly barren expanse of sand dunes and swamp grass that surrounds the Kennedy Space Center, plummeted from the fastest-growing county in the nation during the mid-sixties to the status of “economically depressed area” at the turn of the decade; Cocoa Beach became a blasted maze of broken motels and abandoned subdivisions and only the ironic arrivals of Walt Disney (in nearby Orlando) and scores of elderly retirees saved “America’s Spaceport” from complete collapse.

The relative good future at the MSC is due to the same reason that the massive influx of space-related industry into the area, so cheerfully envisioned in 1961 by Humble and the Chamber of Commerce, didn’t materialize. The MSC was never intended to serve as a center for production but, rather, as Corporate Headquarters of the national endeavor to “conquer space,” its employees charged with the management and coordination of tasks and functions that largely went on elsewhere. Like management everywhere, they did the thinking and decision-making, shuffled papers assiduously (enough to stack all the way to the Moon, said one project manager, not facetiously), and manned the internal apparatus required of an organization attempting to transport people into outer space. Again, like management everywhere, they were least affected by the eventual depression. The bludgeoning of the space budget traveled through the nervous system of bureaucracy to arrive only as spasms of austerity at the Manned Spacecraft Center.

From a peak of 4604 in July 1969, the month of the first lunar landing, employment at the MSC dwindled slowly to about 3600 at the beginning of this year, where center officials think it has leveled off. The last major layoff of contract-support personnel, in August of last year when the end of the Apollo program was in sight, dropped contractor strength to under 6000, some 4000 less than the lush year of 1966-67.

It could have been a good deal worse. When the budgetary ax fell, all manner of projects in various stages of preparation were abandoned—even the Apollo program was cut short by three lunar missions—and it nearly appeared as if America was going to forsake manned space travel altogether. This naturally resulted in something of a quandary in Clear Lake City. What after all does one do with a Manned Spacecraft Center when there is no manned space flight? Sam Houston’s legacy, though, proved equal to the task, aided once again by Texas’ emissaries in Washington (basically Congressmen George Mahon, Olin Teague and Bob Casey, all of whom serendipitously occupy key committee posts).

For short term purposes, there is now the Skylab, a semi-permanent manned orbital laboratory desperately put together out of unused Apollo components (a more ambitious orbiting “space station” had been a budget casualty) and consisting of three missions beginning late this spring.

Picking up soon after is the Space Shuttle project, a reusable launch vehicle more closely akin to the Buck Rogers notion of a “spaceship” than the one-shot rocket boosters currently in use. Designed to take off and land at more-or-less conventional airports, the shuttle project was a bone bitterly fought for by the diverse colonies of the NASA realm, all of which are a little overwrought by their apparently limited futures. The biggest piece of the pie though, landed unerringly at the MSC, once again to accompanying cries of “Politics!” from neglected competitors (especially Floridians who argued, not illogically, that since the shuttle will probably take off and land there it should as well be controlled from there).

Many of the most direct beneficiaries of the Skylab and Space Shuttle are of course workers at the MSC who now have the means of continuing their employment. Skylab project manager Kenneth Kleinknecht says that “every effort” is being made to find places for displaced Apollo workers. They are “trying to facilitate movement from one contractor to another,” which means “encouraging” Skylab contractors to pick up workers laid off by other, less fortunate, contractors.

“There’s an enormous wealth of experience here,” reasons Kleinknecht, “and we know all these people are very goal-oriented. I think we can expect to get better results from them.” Some Apollo project people have already shifted to management of the command module portion of the Skylab.

The current availability of many experienced MSC personnel—veterans of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs—has been a determining factor in scheduling the development of the Space Shuttle. Some critics have already said the Shuttle program, which calls for a first horizontal flight in 1976, is “too rushed,” and thus “needlessly expensive” and dangerous. Rod Rose, an Englishman who has been with NASA since the Agency was created and is presently Technical Assistant for the Space Shuttle program, argues that “There are certain people around here whose skills you need to work on a project regardless of the schedule. Thus you have an essentially fixed overhead which will just add to your costs if you drag it out. The key is to find a balance where your people work at maximum efficiency without falling into a crash program.” It had been the “crash program” aspects of Apollo that helped to mount up the enormous costs of going to the Moon: seven-day work weeks and triple-shifts were standard at the MSC for months at a time, and expenses for overtime often approached the regular payroll.

Much of the publicity resulting from the NASA employment cutbacks has been less concerned with the number of people thrown out of work than with what kind of people they are, it being apparently assumed that PhD’s have more difficulty coping with unemployment than everybody else. Job titles at the MSC normally stretch through three and four progressively more incomprehensible adjectives, and many people have honed their specialties to a fine edge, thus painting themselves into dark corners of the esoteric. Don Pierson accumulated seven degrees on his way to expertise in such things as gamma ray reduction and plasma physics, only to find himself a victim of one of the first MSC cutbacks. He complained at the time that “they’re not getting rid of the deadwood around here,” which was essentially an echo of the continuous running feud between the engineer/manager end of the NASA hierarchy and the scientist/pure research population.

The scientists, known around the MSC as “the long hair and tennis shoe types,” have for years complained that scientific goals are sacrificed to the needs and priorities of the engineers and project managers. “All they [the engineers] wanted to do was get to the Moon and back,” said one scientist, “without a thought as to why they were going or what to do when they were there.”

“If you left it up to the scientists,” retorted an engineer, in the wake of Apollo 17, “they’d still be talking about it, too.”

Proportionately, the science directorate took nearly double the employment cutbacks of the MSC as a whole. A NASA official, who took cover in that “off-the-record” cloud of anonymity that bureaucrats lug around with them, answered that statistic this way: “Look, we didn’t want to fire anybody. But when we had to, the only people we could afford to lose were the ones who weren’t directly essential to the safe and successful accomplishment of the mission. To an unfortunate degree, those were the people doing pure research.”

Many of the displaced scientists and technicians have been forced to move outside their fields to find work, a blow they feel far more personally than being uprooted from Clear Lake. Their roots have never been very deep there in the first place, transience being one of the characteristics of the NASA community. As Alvin Toffler and Vance Packard have pointed out, in the high-technology sectors of society mobility and transience are the guiding characteristics of the technocrat’s life-style. Geography and permanence are largely irrelevant when one builds his identity around his work. To lose that work is a doubly cruel shock. At the MSC, where most of the employees quite obviously ride the arrowhead of technological change, the loss of work means a good deal more than just the loss of income, and they are more than willing to move if they can find it again.

“Well, I was pretty lucky,” says Poppy Northcutt, who “does return trajectories” for TRW Systems, Inc., the software contractor for the Apollo program. She had been the first woman to earn a slot in the “trenches”—the banks of consoles and monitors in the Mission Control Center (reportedly, she was the only person in the retro-fire trench to keep a cool head when Apollo 13 suffered a deep-space abort and had to be brought back from the far side of the Moon with its main engine disabled). “My project manager has been trying to get us jobs elsewhere and I’ve got one in Los Angeles. A lot of the smarter people saw it [the cutbacks] coming and started looking a long time ago. But some of the project managers just kept sitting around, figuring something would turn up, I guess, I don’t know. They’re the ones who are really in trouble. I don’t know what some of them are going to do. It’s really too bad.”

And what of the Astronauts then, Space Heroes with no dragons to slay, highly skilled in a profession of rather restricted application? Deke Slayton, head of the Astronaut Office, in that “everything’s fine” style of dealing with the press that NASA ‘s military-bureaucratic fusion has resulted in, discounts Astronaut morale problems because “this is a volunteer organization.” Besides, he says, “there’s plenty of work around here for them to do.” Twenty are working on the Skylab (only nine will fly, and they have already been named), nine working on the joint U.S.-Soviet flight (three will make it, in 1975), three holding down management roles, and “that only leaves seven to work on the Shuttle program [not scheduled for orbital night until 1980]. There’s no shortage of jobs around here.” There is, however, a shortage of nights, which is what most of them, as Deke Slayton himself knows much too well, had volunteered to do in the first place.

Slayton had been one of the original Mercury 7 Astronauts (he and Al Shepard are the only ones still in the program) and was for many years reputed to be the best pilot in the Astronaut Corps, an accolade of the highest esteem in the circles of experimental test pilots, a breed which approaches airplanes with the same elan that the Hell’s Angels bring to motorcycles. A heart murmur washed him off night status before his first mission, and he has spent the last dozen years assigning other men to the flights he had hoped to be on. A bitter task for a skilled and active man, almost on the borderline between dedication and masochism. Slayton can probably feel great empathy for Astronauts who don’t get to fly, but the closest he will come to stating it is to admit that “a lot of them [the astronauts] will probably be doing some different things sooner or later. Some may retire, some may find something else to do.”

About the only people in the area who haven’t suffered in some way from the cutbacks in the NASA budget are those, as you might have guessed, at the Humble Oil and Refining Company. If America’s faltering climb into outer space didn’t return all of the benefits to the old West Ranch that it was supposed to, well then, the good earth did. A enormous petrochemical complex has grown up in the neighborhood, filling the void intended for the aerospace industry. The Bayport complex had at last count 16 plants, all turning out various carbon and chemical compounds instead of rocket engines, but nonetheless paying the rent. The Monsanto Chemical Company built another huge refinery in nearby Alvin, and Tenneco, Gulf and the Celanese Corporation all moved new plants into the area.

Clear Lake City is still bustling away, the natural growth in the area having taken up much of the slack from the NASA reductions. Chemical engineers make just as much as aeronautical engineers, and the money is still coming in. The enormous economic expansion of the Houston metropolitan area has crept down toward Clear Lake and largely filled whatever gaps the chemical industry left open. Except for a few motels that were almost totally dependent on MSC trade, area business has hardly noticed the changes. A Friendswood Development spokesman rates housing occupancy “as high as ever,” and other local developers agree. “We had to scale down our projections some,” said one, “but fortunately we did that before we were overbuilt.” Clear Lake City is not likely to overtake Salt Lake City any time soon, but it looks to be around for a while. It may even outlast the space program.

THE TRADITIONAL SPLASHDOWN PARTIES after Apollo 17 had, as everyone noted, some of the overtones of an Irish wake. If scientists, engineers, astronauts and technicians all got drunk and lecherous, smoked the cigars doled out by the American Cigar Institute (accompanied by press releases attesting to its public spirit) and pitched friends in swimming pools, still their hearts weren’t in it. Many had their jobs touch down together with the command module. “It’s kind of sad,” said one. “It’s like having a relative with a long terminal illness—you know it’s coming, but when it gets there it still hurts.”

Journalists, though hardly the best-loved group to lurk around the MSC, probably took it harder than most. For all their efforts at cynicism, journalists are romantics at heart and the epic of Going to the Moon had caught them all up in it. The foreign journalists, who had looked on the Apollo program as the kind of crazily grandiose scheme that is archetypally American, were positively disconsolate.

Geologists and necromancers are probably best equipped to determine what it all meant, but old Sam Houston had gotten in a last lick, casting a final irony on a program of ironies: a quarter-million miles away, the wasted hulk of the LEM Challenger, with Richard Nixon’s name inscribed, forever sits 200 feet from the crater called Camelot.

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