How Houston became 'Space City,' and why it's still important

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As the space race enters its next phase with commercialized travel, Houston is still positioned as the "Space City" for a reason.

In the early 1960s, Houston was known as the Bayou City, and its baseball team was called the Colt .45s.

But, that changed overnight.

The federal government picked Houston for its Manned Spacecraft Center. With it, the baseball team became the Astros, and Houston adopted the nickname, "Space City."

"Houston is all about being inspirational to taking risks to really press the fabric of things," Space Center Houston president, William Harris, explained. "It really is the city of inspiration, so it's perfect that it's the home of astronauts."

Inspiration in the 60s also came from President John F. Kennedy. After telling Americans we chose to go to the moon from Rice Stadium, he got an up close look at how NASA was making it happen in Houston.

"We talk about doing that in the next five or six years indicates how far, and how fast we've come, and how far, and how fast we must go," Kennedy said while exploring a southeast Houston facility.

In the early days, NASA wasn't in Clear Lake.

For two years, author, Burton Chapman, wrote about how the agency operated out of several southeast Houston buildings.

"Definitely should be proud of that," Chapman explained. "They were ready and available and willing to help at the height of the space race."

Southeast Houston offered space, but it wasn't glamorous.

Apollo era controllers remember how they couldn't wait for the new complex to open.

"That building we worked in was falling apart," former Apollo controller, Ed Findell recalled. "The air conditioner used to run water under your desk half the time."

In 1964, the manned spacecraft center, now known as the Johnson Space Center, opened a place where some of the most famous conversations took place.

All Apollo missions were run out of Houston. As the program ended, the space industry didn't leave the city.

It entered into its next phase, the shuttle program, and the people behind the controls didn't go far.

"Most of the astronauts live here because this is where they are trained," Harris explained. "They're also constantly having to be retrained for future missions. It takes years to get ready."

After the shuttle program ended, Houston didn't lose its "Space City" title. Astronauts blasted off from other parts of the globe, but mission control in Houston operates the international space station.

Once again, Houston is faced with its next challenge: space exploration is no longer a government operation. It's commercialized.

And at the forefront is Houston, where a number of aerospace companies, including Nanoracks, call home.

"Today, it's about how America is returning to the moon, how we're staying safe, by using space assets," Nanoracks CEO, Jeffrey Manber explained. "How we're making life better on Earth because of space. It's getting bigger than any one program."

Manber said his company picked Houston for its proximity to JSC.

With NASA planning to return to the moon, he says there are plenty of jobs in the area to make it happen.

But, it's getting harder to attract talent. Manber said other aerospace companies are luring young minds with California and Florida beaches.

"Houston and Texas are still the place you have to go, but there's a lot of competition coming," Manber said.

There are challenges, but Houston still plays a vital role in the space race.

When Americans once again take off from U.S. soil on Wednesday, it'll be mission control in Houston helping to make it happen.

"There's a lot of history here," Harris said. "There's a lot of legacy here, but it's also indicative of our city being a place of innovation."

After nearly 60 years, that innovation is why the baseball team is still called the Astros and Houston's nickname remains "Space City."

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