In a small Episcopal church in El Lago outside of Houston, a young man stood at the altar looking out at the solemn room. It was the summer of 1983. Sitting in the pews were his father’s family and closest friends: astronauts, scientists, engineers, doctors, neighbors. It had been twenty years since they moved to Houston and called the area now known as Clear Lake home. On this day, they came to honor the life of a colleague. A man who with a shared vision helped launch the most exciting scientific endeavor of our century—the race to the moon.
“I will not speak as though my father was a great man for one of the many things he taught me was that there really are no great men, only circumstances that allow ordinary men to do great things,” Dr. Brian Hull said in his father’s, my grandfather’s, eulogy.
But what took place in that small community of southeast Texas in 1963 was just that; the circumstances for greatness to be achieved through manned space travel. In the national arena, the attention to space exploration was constant. And the faces of the exploration gave rise to a group of larger than life individuals—the astronauts—a unique group of men who were famous for being the first of their kind. With buzzed haircuts, etched jaw lines, and tough physiques, they became the new American heroes. Profiled in newspapers across the country, Americans wanted to know everything about the military test pilots chosen as astronauts. The rural area outside of Houston soon became the center of it all.
Now over 40 years since the construction of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, the allure of the early years is lost in the history books. In April, President Barack Obama, speaking at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said, “The challenges facing our space program are different and our imperatives for this program are different than in decades past. We’re no longer racing against an adversary. We’re no longer competing to achieve a singular goal like reaching the moon.”
But in 1963, the race was just starting. Dr. Wayland E. Hull was a professor of physiology at Duke University. His pioneering research in high altitude physiology would lead to an offer to join the NASA team. Along with thousands of other specialists and leaders in their field, Wayland Hull moved his family outside of Houston, Texas to work at the Space Center. Today there are nine NASA home bases for astronauts across the nation; the original is in Houston. In 1961, development for the center began on a 1,600-acre plot of land and new neighborhoods engulfed the Clear Lake suburbs, which was soon made up of NASA employees and high-profile astronauts.
The original seven astronauts—Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald Slayton—were chosen in 1959 to play out Project Mercury, that would send a man into space. But in 1961, the Russians sent the first man, Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin, into space, making the race to the moon the next goal. Project Mercury ended in 1963, and nine additional astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, were selected in preparation for landing a man on the moon’s surface before the end of the decade. The Johnson Space Center was where this would all be made possible.
“They selected these military test pilots and held them up as representatives of leaders of the free world in space,” said Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut from 1990 to 2005. “It was a natural way of reacting to what the Soviets did with their cosmonauts. They put them forward as military warriors and space warriors, and so did we.” The sense of heroism and bravery attributed to the persona of the astronauts brought a new type of celebrity to the American homes. Family men living in Texas. Brave military veterans. Fathers. Husbands.
“They were all skilled pilots,” Brian Hull says. “They had an incredible sense of adventure and exploration but the NASA leadership and the government wanted them to be movie stars and to seem larger than life because it helped it all seem possible.”
The news media rallied around the idea of the astronaut celebrity and helped harness public enthusiasm and support through the constant coverage. “Astronauts in those days were demigods,” said Reid Miller, the former Miami bureau chief for the Associated Press who covered the Gemini and Apollo missions. “Every single person, every single child knew their names. An astronaut didn’t sneeze without us knowing.”
Gemini, the second human spaceflight project, helped develop 10 manned flights between 1965 and 1966 that were performed in preparation for Project Apollo. Miller was based in Miami as the AP news editor and later the bureau chief during the pivotal years of NASA’s early launches. But when he and his team of around 40 reporters were covering an anticipated mission, they went to Houston to get the story.
Miller says his most exciting reporting experience was covering Apollo 11, the first mission to the moon’s surface. The crew of Apollo 11 included Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin. In the months before the July 16 launch in 1969, their lives and the lives of their families were front-page material. “We staked out their homes. We watched their wives coming and going and their children if they had them. We covered them like a blanket,” Miller said.
Apollo 11 has been regarded as “the greatest show in the history of television,” recalled David Bushman, the television curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York City. The achievement stood for something that united the country. “It was an early example of something that is very common now—it is not just the actual event itself that is significant, but it is also the media event,” Bushman said.
In his article recounting the impact of Apollo 11, Bushman wrote it was “no small feat given that