The Apollo missions that flew to the Moon during the 1960s were designed and controlled by what is now known as Johnson Space Center, the home of the famous “Mission Control.” Moreover, the astronauts that flew to the Moon all lived in Houston. It would stand to reason, therefore, that as NASA gears up to return to the Moon, major elements of this program would likewise be controlled from the Texas metropolis that styles itself “Space City.”
Times change, however. In recent months, the politically well-positioned Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama, has been quietly pressing leaders with NASA Headquarters for program management of mid- to large-size landers to the lunar surface, which would evolve into human landers. Sources indicated this effort was having some success.
However, Texas legislators have now begun to push back. On Tuesday, both of Texas’ senators (John Cornyn and Ted Cruz), as well as three representatives with space-related committee chairs (John Culberson, Lamar Smith, and Brian Babin), wrote a letter to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
“We support NASA’s focus on returning to the Moon and using it as part of a stepping stone approach to place American boots on the surface of Mars in the 2030s,” the Texas Republicans wrote. “As NASA reviews solicitations for lunar landers, we write to express our strong support for the establishment of NASA’s lunar lander program at the Johnson Space Center.” The letter reminds Bridenstine of Houston’s strong spaceflight heritage.
Commercial crew lesson
During the 1960s, Texas had considerable political clout. Native son Lyndon B. Johnson was vice president when President Kennedy said humans would go to the Moon, and he was president during most of the Apollo program development. More important still, a Houston Congressman named Albert Thomas led the House committee that oversaw NASA’s budget and steered the agency’s human spaceflight center to his hometown.
The influence of Texas’ political clout over spaceflight waned in subsequent decades, and the Houston space center learned a painful lesson a little less than a decade ago. When the time came to establish a program office for commercial crew, Kennedy Space Center won out over Johnson, a somewhat curious decision, because this program was responsible for flying humans into space. This decision was attributed to a number of factors, but Florida Senator Bill Nelson’s close relationship with the new administrator at the time, Charles Bolden, probably sealed the deal.
In the last decade, however, Texas has regained some of its political clout. Rep. Culberson now holds a similar position, in terms of writing NASA’s budget in the House, that Thomas did in the 1960s. Cruz and Babin both chair subcommittees in the Senate and House that set spaceflight policy for NASA.
“Fortunately, I’m in the right place at the right time to protect Johnson Space Center to restore NASA to the glory days of Apollo and beyond,” Culberson told Ars.
Speaking on background, a Senate source said the Texas delegation hopes to see more leadership from the management of Johnson Space Center. In recent years, the Senate source said, center directors in Alabama and Florida have been more vigorous and effective in advocating for their needs. The legislators believe the Houston center’s new director, Mark Geyer, will be more assertive, while still working closely with headquarters.
The lunar lander program management issue is not the only one that NASA’s human spaceflight centers are likely to contest this year. NASA headquarters is also managing development of the Gateway project in a lunar orbit, which astronauts will periodically visit. While Mission Control in Houston will certainly manage those flights, it is not entirely clear which center will manage development of the Gateway outpost, which consists of several modules built by NASA, international partners, and private industry.
A NASA spokeswoman, Kathryn Hambleton, said programmatic announcements for Gateway and the evolvable lunar lander programs are expected by the end of this calendar year.