Houston’s official nickname since 1967: Space City. It’s NBA team: the Rockets. Its MLB franchise is the Astros, and they played in the Astrodome. It’s no wonder that the city that prides itself as the premier intellectual base of America’s manned space program is in a bit of a funk as space shuttle Atlantis makes its final landing today.
Aerospace is not Houston’s largest industry — it comes in at No. 4. So NASA jobs are just part of what the city is worried about. It's also that ever since then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson helped pass the National Aeronautics and Space Act in 1958, the city has largely preferred to see itself not through the prism of its gargantuan energy and petrochemical sectors, but through the engineering and scientific accomplishments of what would become the Johnson Space Center.
As the shuttle completes its last mission without a clear plan for the future, Houston’s aerospace community is left to fret — and fight — about its own path forward.
“It’s not like the Apollo program, where everything crashed but the shuttle was on the horizon,” says Wayne Rast, a 19-year veteran contractor at the space center who worked for Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and the United Space Alliance, among others.
The Bush administration’s program to create a successor to the shuttle while the shuttle was still flying was underfunded and quickly canceled, after the Obama administration ordered a review of NASA’s long-term goals. Now, NASA’s future plans are unsettled, at best.
That lack of clarity has contractors at the space center shedding jobs. Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, which represents many of the aerospace companies that have laid off employees, estimates the Houston area will have lost 3,800 high-paying jobs by the end of the year.
Rast lost his position in October when a sharp budget cut at NASA’s Astronaut Office prompted the United Space Alliance — one of the agency’s primary shuttle contractors — to lay off more than 40 percent of one of its advisory groups at the space center.
Houston’s fortune in hosting mission control has helped it grow an enormous technological knowledge base, and some fear that the layoffs will precipitate a brain drain. Many of the newly unemployed have long, impressive resumes, and they are highly desirable employees for many companies — just not in their chosen field.
Rast says the community of engineers and scientists at the space center is immensely demoralized.
“I can’t overstate the difficulty for people who have worked in this industry every day of their lives,” he says. “They’re thinking that there will be no government spaceflight in the future, and that this is an industry we have to leave.”
For his part, Rast secured a job in the Houston area that allowed him to stay in Kemah, where he’s been a city council member for nine years. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1990 with a degree in aerospace engineering and now works for Dow Chemical.
Rast says the only thing curbing the possible flow of technical expertise away from Houston, for now, is the high unemployment rate in most other parts of the country.
Not soon enough
For Houston suburbs like Webster and Clear Lake, the economic impact will be even greater. Souvenir shops, restaurants, gas stations, hotels, apartments and even storage facilities proudly display NASA and space-related icons and signage. The cities depend on space tourism and the Houston Space Center, the Johnson Space Center’s visitor center and museum, as well as the high-paying jobs associated with the space program.
There’s even NASA TV. The channel often airs closed circuit footage of Houston’s mission control but recently has taken to playing and replaying a 14-minute video narrated by William Shatner that reviews the shuttle program history.
“Soon,” Shatner says, over footage of NASA’s envisioned heavy-lift rocket, “America will again send astronauts into orbit, and beyond.”
How soon that really will come, and what form it will take, is a matter of intense debate in Houston’s aerospace community. If Space City is to successfully transition away from the shuttle program and keep its most prestigious industry afloat, all agree that it needs a new strategy. But the two camps in the fight are advocating radically different plans.
On one side are aerospace contractors, the entire Texas congressional delegation, and the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, which represents 170 companies in Galveston and Harris counties, many of them involved in aerospace.
The Bush administration’s 2004 proposal for space exploration would have retired the shuttle in favor of two rockets that would help to return American astronauts to the moon. The $108 billion program was set to be developed and managed in Houston. When that program was scrapped in favor of an alternative program that didn’t give much to the city, Texas’ congressional delegation fought back.
In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress directed NASA to spend money to continue developing pieces of the 2004 plan, which had already been canceled. That included the Orion crew capsule, for which NASA has continued development, albeit at a slower pace, and $2.1 billion for a heavy-lift rocket — money that Houston’s aerospace industry badly wants, and that advocates say is crucial to maintaining American manned spaceflight.
The problem? The money has gone unspent, much to the frustration of Congress, while NASA tries to formulate a development plan. Critics in Congress say NASA doesn't want the rocket and is operating in bad faith.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, threatened to issue NASA a subpoena to ensure that the money would be spent. NASA supplied Hutchison and others with documents, but members of Congress pushing for the rocket remain unsatisfied.
Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, praises the efforts.
“Our congressional delegation has done a tremendous job,” he says. “What’s lacking right now is leadership in Washington.”
In the other camp, the primary goal is to bring commercial spaceflight providers to Texas.
In the shuttle’s wake, NASA has vague plans to construct a heavy-lift rocket, but those plans are under review, and it may not be ready for a decade or more. In the short term, the agency has plans to contract small-scale manned spaceflight out to private companies. A number of groups appear to be in reach of that capability — a few of them with ties to Texas, but none of them in Houston.
Rast, the former NASA contractor, together with Rick Tumlinson, a Texas-based space activist, founded the Texas Space Alliance, a public advocacy group that lobbies for new commercial spaceflight providers.
Rast and Tumlinson admit that commercial space flight won’t completely fill the vacuum left by the shuttle’s retirement. But they remain optimistic about the economic promise of NASA’s new agenda for Houston and the state.
The group scored its first legislative victory in Texas this year, with SB 115, authored by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, which limited the liability of spaceflight providers operating out of Texas.
Tumlinson is less complimentary about Congress’ recent efforts.
“Congress has totally failed, again,” he says. “The idea that this is the end of the American space program is ridiculous, it’s absurd.”
About efforts to make NASA spend more money in the Houston area, Tumlinson is equally dismissive.
“The Johnson Space Center is a federal facility. It could close tomorrow, and then what? You have to invest in your people,” he says.
Commercial spaceflight providers, he says, love Texas. “There’s an attitude here that you can fail and you can get up again and dust yourself off and go for it again,” Tumlinson says.
The push to bring commercial spaceflight operations to Texas may be starting to pay off. Last month, the Harlingen Valley Morning Star reported that an aerospace company was attempting to lease 50 acres in Willacy County for a launch site.
While interest and advocacy groups fight over Houston’s future in space exploration, Space Shuttle Atlantis concluded its last hurrah in Florida today at 5:56 in the morning.
It orbited Earth more than 4,600 times, and carried 159 people more than 125 million miles. It’s landing will represent the end of a program that for three decades has been integral to some of the most impressive scientific and engineering accomplishments of the age.
It will also represent the end of an era for the city of Houston.