Q: I know that Texas has been one of the main centers of the country’s space program, but I’m curious: Have Texans been important to the space program? How many astronauts were or are Texans, for instance? Also, did the Texanist ever want to be an astronaut?
Buddy Fishburn, Dallas
A: In the very early 1960s, when the nascent National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Space Task Group was looking for digs outside of its original home at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, Texas was fortunate to have an impressive presence in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. There’s little doubt that Texas power players such Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was then head of the Space Council; Sam Rayburn, speaker of the House of Representatives; Albert Thomas, chair of the House Appropriations Committee; Bob Casey; a member of the House Committee on Science and Aeronautics; and Olin Teague, also a member of the House Committee on Science and Aeronautics as well as that committee’s Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight, exerted considerable influence in selling Houston as the ideal location for NASA’s newly named Manned Spacecraft Center. And since that time, Texas has indeed been at the forefront of the country’s endeavors in crewed space exploration.
In signature grand Texas fashion, Houston welcomed the country’s inaugural group of astronauts, the Mercury Seven, with a big downtown parade in 1962. Also in grand Texas fashion, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wall Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton, familiar names all, were honored at a barbecue that was replete with 3000 pounds of beef, 3000 pounds of pork ribs, 1,500 chickens, 150 pounds of beans, and 500 pounds of onions. For dessert, the new astronauts were gifted with crisp new Stetson Open Road hats, a grand Texas fashion accessory that was favored by LBJ.
Just a few years later, in 1967, Houston received its official nickname, Space City, and quickly became synonymous with the Manned Spacecraft Center, which was officially renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in 1973, shortly after the former president’s death. “Houston,” as is indelibly recorded in the annals of history, was, in the summer of 1969, among the first words spoken from the surface of moon: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” And who could forget “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” from the troubled Apollo 13 mission a year later? (The more familiar “Houston, we have a problem” was a bit of poetic license taken by the 1995 movie Apollo 13 which then displaced astronaut Jim Lovell’s less felicitous wording in the popular historical record, a testament, perhaps, to the screenwriting prowess of Texas Monthly alums Bill Broyles and Al Reinert.)
In short, Texas, as home to the Space Center, has made immeasurable contributions to the country’s space program, as the wording of your question suggests you already know, Mr. Fishburn. As to whether or not Texans have been central to that endeavor, the Texanist must acknowledge that though none of the celebrated Mercury astronauts were Texan—which, in retrospect, given Texans’ pioneering spirit, seems like something of a crime—there are a good many astronauts who have called Texas home. In fact, Texas is the birthplace of more than twenty astronauts; it ranks, if the Texanist’s research is to be trusted, third in the number of astronauts per state, closely behind New York and California. The more jaded among us might note that this is not all that impressive given that Texas is one of the country’s most populous states. But the Texanist will note that some of these frontiersmen are credited with some very remarkable achievements.
Ed White, of San Antonio, was a member of the second group of NASA astronauts, and in 1965 he became the first American—and the second human being, after Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov—to walk in space. White, unfortunately, died along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 disaster in 1967. David Scott, also of San Antonio, was, in 1971, the first person to drive a wheeled vehicle on the lunar surface. Robert Crippen, of Beaumont, piloted the first Space Shuttle mission, whose historic landing the Texanist, as a Temple High School freshman, watched on the big screen during lunchtime at a nearby Mr. Gatti’s Pizza. Bernard Harris, who was born in Temple, was the first African-American to perform a space walk. In 1991, Millie Hughes-Fulford, of Mineral Wells, became the first female payload specialist. The Texanist feels it is only decent to note that Rick Husband, who died in the tragic Columbia disaster in 2003, was born in Amarillo. There are others, of course.
As to the question of whether or not the Texanist himself ever dreamed of walking in the moondust-filled footsteps of these great men and women, he will note that he was born in the midst of the Cold War, not long after the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States began, and though the he was only a little more than three years old when man first set foot on the moon, he retains vague memories of watching live coverage of Neil Armstrong taking that momentous step at his next-door neighbor’s house. As it was to most all youths born at the dawn of the space age, the prospect of space travel was exciting to the young Texanist, and there were moments, in between his various desires to grow up to be GI Joe, Muhammad Ali, and a fireman, that he daydreamed about leaving the Earth’s orbit. (The Texanist suspects that there are times when his wife, too, daydreams about him leaving the Earth’s orbit.)
As such, the Texanist “trained” in a large playhouse-like toy space capsule and spent hours upon hours at Temple’s Jaycee Park, which, because of its tall, multi-colored, multi-leveled, upright steel rocket centerpiece, was more widely known as “rocket park.” The Texanist was also influenced by High Flight, a three-minute film that folks of a certain age may remember. During the 1970s, that film, which had been adapted from a poem of the same name by the British pilot John Magee, Jr., was used by many television stations as a sign-off, which is something that television stations used to do every night well after the Texanist’s prescribed bedtime. (Yes, kids there was an era when, at certain hours, you could turn on the television and be greeted by nothing at all on the seven-or-so channels we received.) Voiced by William Conrad, who was known for playing TV detective Frank Cannon, the poem was enthralling, or at least it was when accompanied by footage of a gleaming B-36 bomber and some very New Age-y synthesizer music. “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings,” Conrad intoned in his smoky yet velvety voice.
(This High Flight should not be mistaken for the 1957 British feature film of the same name, which was also inspired by the Magee poem, and starred Ray Milland as Wing Commander Granite Rudge, a truly great cinematic name. The Texanist has not seen this movie, but feels compelled to share this one odd fact: it was co-produced by Albert Broccoli [his actual name], who is best-known for launching the James Bond movie franchise, and featured an actor named Ian Fleming in a small role, and yet that Ian Fleming was not the same Ian Fleming who wrote the James Bond novels. Freaky!)
Yet was the Texanist ever stirred enough by any of this to seriously contemplate becoming an astronaut himself? No, not really. The Texanist isn’t the sort of person who would do well with freeze-dried barbecue. And besides, although he couldn’t have known it at the time, there was another important mission in the service of mankind waiting out there for the Texanist, a mission he steadfastly sees through to this very day on an almost weekly basis. America, you’re welcome.