Locating the Facilities

It was clear to NASA managers that as part of the decision to start a rapid space buildup, NASA would have to quickly create several large new facili­ties. The decision on what kind of facilities to build and, politically more important, where to locate them, was thus a high priority issue in the months immediately following President Kennedy’s May 1961 speech. Although a formal announcement of facility decisions could not be made until August 1961, after the Congress had actually appropriated the increased FY1962 budget that the president had proposed, planning for the facility buildup began in earnest even before the speech. While most decisions with respect to launch vehicle production, testing, and launch were made without signifi­cant White House involvement, such was not the case with respect to locat­ing the new NASA “field center” which would train the men who would go to the Moon and oversee the development and operation of the spacecraft that would carry them there.11

Well before President Kennedy’s approval of the lunar landing mission, it had been clear to the NASA leadership that, if there was to be a follow-on

Locating the Facilities

President Kennedy meeting with his senior advisers for a late 1961 budget review at his father’s house in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. From left to right: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the president, budget director David Bell, deputy secretary of defense Roswell Gilpatric, science adviser Jerome Wiesner, special counsel Theodore Sorensen, and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy (JFK Library photograph).

effort to Project Mercury, the Space Task Group, which was managing Mercury, needed to be moved from its location at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. This move was necessary because human space flight required engineering development, flight operations, and especially project management skills, not the engineering research-oriented approach that was characteristic of Langley.

As early as NASA’s creation in 1958, there was a specific view on where to locate the next new NASA installation; that view came from a politically

powerful source. Soon after NASA opened its doors for business on October 1, 1958, Administrator Glennan heard from Congressman Albert Thomas, whose district included Houston, Texas. Thomas was chairman of the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee that controlled NASA’s fund­ing. Glennan learned that Thomas “was anxious that his district. . . should benefit from the space program.” Thomas suggested that Houston’s Rice University was willing to give NASA 1,000 acres of land as a location for a new NASA “laboratory.” Glennan told him that NASA was “not about to build any new laboratory facilities beyond the one already authorized and on which con­struction had begun.” (This would become the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.) Thomas responded “somewhat peevishly” that the decision to locate the new facility in Maryland “had gone through without his sanction since he had been absent” from Washington. Thomas persisted in his advocacy. He made several more calls to Glennan in late 1958 and finally told the NASA administrator: “Now look here, Dr., let’s cut the bull. Your budget calls for $14 million for Beltsville [actually Greenbelt], and I am telling you that you won’t get a god-damned cent of it unless the laboratory is moved to Houston.” Glennan was able to fend off this threat, but when it became evi­dent in 1961 that there would be a new NASA installation for human space flight and that many locations in the United States would compete for host­ing it, Glennan, who by then was back at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, advised Ohio state officials not to waste their time in that competition because “Houston would be the site chosen.”12

In late April 1961, as it was becoming clear that President Kennedy was likely to approve a major acceleration of the NASA human space flight program, NASA administrator Webb recognized that a separate, new NASA center would indeed be needed to manage the effort, and instructed his staff to begin the site selection process. He put $60 million in the NASA budget estimates being prepared for the White House as a down payment on constructing the new center. The site selection team considered locations in Florida and California, but was also well aware of Representative Thomas’s long-standing interest in having a new NASA installation in Houston. Thus NASA representatives visited Houston on May 16, even before the presi­dent’s announcement of the lunar landing goal. They were met there by George Brown of the Houston-based Brown & Root construction company, a Lyndon Johnson ally who had been consulted by the vice president dur­ing Johnson’s recent space review, and by a representative of the Houston Chamber of Commerce.13 But this turned out to be a false start in the site selection process; it was not restarted in earnest until August 7, when the Congress passed the appropriations bill that included the $60 million in funding for the new center.

As it became widely known in May that the president was going to propose a major acceleration of the NASA program, Representative Thomas made it clear to NASA administrator James Webb that the 1958 Houston offer, and the implied threat of problems for the NASA budget if it were not accepted, still stood. On May 23, Webb reported to Vice President Lyndon Johnson that Thomas had “made it very clear” that he was “extremely interested” in Houston being selected as the location for the new manned spacecraft center that clearly was going to be needed to manage the lunar landing program.14 In 1961, being the location for this center was a much more attractive proposition than it had been earlier, since the demands of Apollo would clearly require a major facility with many jobs created and thus a sig­nificant demand for housing and services in the areas adjacent to the new NASA installation. Rice University was still prepared to donate to NASA a sizeable plot of land some thirty miles south of downtown Houston as the location for the new center; Houston construction, real estate, and other business interests recognized that the facility would generate a wide variety of economic opportunities for the area. Humble Oil, the Houston corpo­ration that had donated the land to Rice now to be transferred to NASA, still owned most of the surrounding property, and realized that its value would increase substantially if a major new government facility were located on the university’s land. George Brown’s construction company, Brown & Root, hoped to get the contract to build the new NASA installation. Brown was chairman of the Rice Board of Trustees, had been a major contributor to Lyndon Johnson’s senatorial campaigns, and was also closely allied with Albert Thomas. Securing NASA’s agreement to locate its new center in the Houston area thus became a political issue of the first order.15

The opportunities presented by the decision to develop a new NASA center of course did not go unnoticed in other parts of the country, and both the White House and NASA were bombarded after the president’s May 25 speech by communications from members of Congress and state and local officials suggesting that the area they represented would be an ideal location for the new installation. Pressing the case for California was Representative George Miller, who was the acting chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics after Overton Brooks fell ill. Missouri directed its advocacy through powerful Senator Stuart Symington. Making the case for Texas in addition to Thomas were Representative Olin “Tiger” Teague, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight, and Representative Joe Kilgore; in addition, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Vice President Lyndon Johnson advocated the Texas cause. Johnson and Albert Thomas were not political allies within the fractious Texas Democratic Party, but they were united on this issue.

Of particular political concern to President Kennedy and his top political assistant Kenneth O’Donnell was continuing pressure from the governor of Massachusetts, John Volpe, to locate the new center at Hingham Air Force Base near Boston. Volpe wrote Kennedy on July 19, before the site selection process had formally begun, saying that “as one Bay Stater to another,” he wanted to call the advantages of the Massachusetts location to the president’s attention. By this time, NASA had made public its preliminary criteria for deciding on the location for the new center, and Volpe outlined the ways in which the Hingham location met those criteria, conveniently omitting the requirement set by NASA for “a mild climate permitting year-round, ice-free, water transportation; and permitting out-of-door work for most of the year.” Volpe closed his letter by saying to Kennedy, “may I urge your help in bringing this project to Massachusetts.”16 In the succeeding two months, O’Donnell and NASA’s Webb had a series of interactions reflecting Volpe’s hope that Boston would be chosen as the location for the new center.

The final criteria for site selection, including both eight “essential crite­ria” and four “desirable criteria,” were approved by top NASA managers in mid-August. Before that approval, conscious of the Massachusetts interest, Administrator Webb had reviewed and specifically reiterated the “mild cli­mate” requirement as being essential. In a September 14 memorandum to the president discussing the site selection process, Webb provided five justi­fications for the climate requirement, concluding that “selection of a site in an area meeting the stated climate criterion will minimize both the cost and the time required for this project” and noting the many ways in which the Boston area failed to meet the requirement.

Upon an initial assessment by the NASA site selection team, nine potential sites, notably not including Houston, met all or most criteria, and arrange­ments were made by the team to visit those areas. While visiting the original nine locations, an additional fourteen sites were brought to the attention of the team; the Rice University site favored by Representative Thomas was one of those additions to the list. In all, the site selection team visited twenty- three potential sites; they were located in Florida (2), Louisiana (3), Texas (9), Missouri (4), and California (5). At each site, the routine was similar: an afternoon arrival and greeting by state and local dignitaries, a meeting to explain the selection criteria, a breakfast meeting with local representatives, and a visit to the proposed site and a nearby college or university. The site selection team “felt that locations north of the freezing line were unlikely to meet the requirements” and thus did not originally plan to visit any such site.

Delegations representing sites in Virginia and Rhode Island not being considered by the selection team pleaded their case in presentations directly to NASA’s James Webb and Hugh Dryden. Also, on September 1, a Massachusetts delegation headed by Governor Volpe and Senator Benjamin Smith, John Kennedy’s former college roommate who had been appointed in December 1960 to fill JFK’s Senate seat, met with the two NASA leaders to argue for consideration of the Hingham site and to ask that the site selec­tion team at least visit Massachusetts. A large meeting of Boston business interests sponsored by the leading local newspaper, The Boston Globe, also called upon the president to select the Massachusetts site. On September 8, Governor Volpe called James Webb, again asking whether the team would visit Massachusetts. The phone conversation was described by Webb’s biog­rapher as “acrimonious.”17 Volpe told Webb that “great political pressure was building up” for such a visit. Webb responded that “it was most difficult to promise this without doing so in many other cases,” but told Volpe that he could make public his intervention with Webb in order to relieve some of the political pressure on the governor. Webb told President Kennedy in a somewhat self-congratulatory way that he believed that “it was an eminently fair proposal for me to have put to him.” Then, on September 13, without notifying Volpe or any other Massachusetts official, the site selection team did visit the Hingham site “for an inspection of the terrain and existing buildings.” The only other site visited on the basis of political intervention was in St. Louis, to satisfy Senator Symington’s request.

John F. Kennedy followed this process closely, and Webb kept him informed and then on September 11 briefed him on the likely outcome. According to Webb’s public statements at the time of the site selection, Kennedy told the NASA administrator then that even though there had been pressures on him to intervene in the process, he expected Webb “to make this decision in the light of the national interest.” Webb noted that Kennedy had “intervened in no way to try to favor his own state of Massachusetts, or to rule it out of the game.” Rather, the president wanted NASA to have full responsibility for the site selection decision. Webb later revised this account of the selection process, saying that Kennedy had at some point called Albert Thomas to seek his support for several bills before the House of Representatives. Thomas had been vague about his willingness to support the bills until Kennedy told him: “Now, you know Jim Webb is thinking about putting this center down in Houston.” From that point on, Thomas supported the three bills and “felt that he had a commitment from Kennedy” about the location of the new center.18

The site selection team reported its findings and recommendations in the second week of September. The team’s first choice, flying in the face of the political pressures from Texas interests, was MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida, which was scheduled for closure as a Strategic Air Command airfield. It is interesting to speculate whether Webb and Dryden would have accepted this recommendation, given their broader perspective and the need to consider political factors. But at the last minute the Air Force changed its mind about closing MacDill, and the team’s second preference, the Houston site associated with Rice University, became the top-ranked choice of the site selection group.19

Webb and Dryden met on the evening of September 13 and again on the morning of September 14 to review the site selection team report and hear the results of its last minute visit to Massachusetts. That visit did not change their assessment of the team’s ranking, and Webb and Dryden decided that “this laboratory should be located at Houston, Texas, in close association with Rice University and the other educational institutions there and in that region.” The new installation was designated the Manned Spacecraft Center. (It was renamed the Johnson Space Center after Lyndon Johnson’s death in 1973, even though it was Albert Thomas, not Johnson, who had the greater influence on the decision to locate the center in Houston.)

Webb informed the president of this decision in a September 14 mem­orandum, noting that “a press release has been prepared announcing this decision, and we are holding it for issue after the White House notification of those who your staff feels should have advance information.”20 Kenneth

O’Donnell remembered President Kennedy as saying, after reading Webb’s two September 14 memos, “It’s a good decision. Let’s go through with it.” The public announcement of the selection of the Houston location came on September 19. With that announcement and the choice of sites in Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi for launch-related facilities, the arc of new NASA installations along the Gulf of Mexico coast in the southeastern region of the United States that James Webb had advocated in his May 23 memorandum to Vice President Johnson had come into being.

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