Johnson Space Center Celebrates 50 Years

The Johnson Space Center celebrated its 50th birthday today. It's also celebrating the recent announcement of a new plan to build a rocket to explore the solar system. The rocket won't be built here in Houston, but Director Mike Coats says that related projects will keep the JSC busy and relevant. KUHF Health Science and Technology reporter Carrie Feibel has more.

It was on Sept. 19 in 1961 that NASA chose Houston as the winning site to build a new center for human space flight. Houston offered a mild climate, a warm-water port, airports, and a university.

Johnson Space Center Aerial
Aerial of Johnson Space Center. NASA image.

It probably didn’t hurt either that Lyndon Johnson was vice president at the time.

Director Mike Coats shared some celebratory cake and also talked about what comes next: 

“We’re pretty excited that we’ve got agreement from the government on what we’re going to work on for the next 50 years of JSC’s history, and that’s fun.”

The agreement from last week was about final designs for a heavy-lift rocket. The rocket system will be built in Alabama, but the crew capsule to carry the astronauts will be built around here.  

Coats says the announcement brought a much-needed moral boost.

“This has been a difficult year for us, with two major programs coming to an end, both Constellation and the shuttle program flying out. We’re losing in the neighborhood of 4,000 contractor jobs, and we’ve lost many in the last year, and that’s very painful for us.”

The annual budget for the Johnson Space Center has dropped from about $6 billion dollars to about $4.5 billion. The center is using buyouts and attrition to gradually reduce the number of civil servants directly employed by NASA.

But the crew capsule project employs about 1,200 people in the Houston region — some working for NASA, and some working for contractors.

Once the capsule is put together with the rocket, NASA could aim it for the moon, an asteroid, or Mars.

Coats says he believes that children being born now will someday witness humans landing on Mars:

“I think they will. I think those children will grow up and see us landing on Mars. One of those children may step foot on Mars for the first time. That’s pretty exciting. It may be 30 or 35 years. There’s no time table right now. But we have to develop the capabilities to go explore. We have to have a heavy-lift launch vehicle. If we don’t have something in the 100 to 130 metric-ton range, to lift things out of earth’s gravity well, we’re not going to explore. It’s not going to happen. So this is very important to have a space launch system that they finally agreed on.”

In addition to the new launch system, JSC workers will continue to manage the space station, train astronauts and invent new technologies to help humans survive for long periods of time in outer space.

From the KUFH Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...