Houston Leads in Aerospace – Past, Present, and Future

Houston Spaceport
Artist rendering of the Houston Spaceport

“We choose to go to the moon,” and just like that, Houston and the Space Industry became indefinitely intertwined. Since 1961, Houstonians have identified as being Space City, USA. Most Houstonians do not know what our region was like before the addition of the Johnson Space Center. President John F. Kennedy spoke the above quote at Rice University on September 12, 1962. And while it was not the first time Kennedy mentioned Americans landing on the moon, this speech is the most well-known. And, coincidentally, the speech was made in Houston!

Johnson Space Center

The Manned Spacecraft Center, as it was initially named, was established in 1961 and housed in an assortment of available buildings in Southeast Houston. The official facility in Clear Lake, 25 miles southeast of Downtown Houston, was not completed and opened until 1964. The facility was renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) in 1973.

Houston Leads in Aerospace - JSC Mission Control Center
Mission Control during the Gemini IV flight in 1965. (Photo credit NASA)

In 1961, Houston had many of the assets needed to support NASA then, as it continues today. We are a city with much to offer all industries. The NASA program was looking for a region for the facility that had deep water transport, a first-class all-weather airport, proximity to a major telecommunication network, a well-established pool of industrial and contractor support, cheap building costs, a reliable electric grid, a readily available supply of water, a mild climate for year-round outdoor work, and a culturally attractive community. Having Rice University, the University of Texas, and Texas A&M in the area were bonuses. Houston beat other cities for the Manned Spacecraft Center, such as San Diego and Corpus Christi.

JSC’s Mission Control Center has been the operational nerve center of every American human space mission since Gemini IV in June 1965. And who doesn’t know the famous words, “Houston…the Eagle has landed,” by astronaut Neil Armstrong on June 20, 1969. Mission Control continues to be the hub of operations managing the Internal Space Station and looking toward other moon visits called the Artemis Missions.

Space Economy

It’s not just history that connects Houston to aerospace. More than 500 aerospace, space, and aviation firms and companies are located in the Greater Houston Region. The industry continues to grow. While many other industries contracted or collapsed during the peak of Covid, Houston’s aerospace sector continued to boom. In 2018, the JSC budget was $4.6 Billion, with $2.3 Billion of that spent in Texas, that is 51% spent in the state.  In the same year, $189 Million of JSC spending directly went to small businesses. NASA and the private aerospace industry are an essential part of our economy.

“The space industry is making life better on Earth,” said Jeffery Manber, CEO, Nanorocks, “it’s getting bigger than any one program.” Many inventions for space travel that have improved our lives on land include invisible braces, memory foam, artificial limbs, scratch-resistant lenses, and the Dust Buster (originally invented to take rock samples). Public-private aerospace partnerships continue to bring Americans innovations that help us thrive.

Houston leads in aerospace
International Space Station (photo credit: Boeing)

Today’s aerospace industry is at an intersection of space, life sciences, and energy. With the Energy Capital of the World and the largest Medical Center both located in Houston, our aerospace industry is destined to collaborate. Currently, work is being done to grow human retinas in space due to the zero-gravity conditions. And new rockets are being invented where high-power chemical rockets are paired with electric engines.

The Houston Spaceport, a hub located at Ellington Airport, is off and running with the proper infrastructure for companies to set up shop there, including military-grade runways, the ability for vertical take-offs, and a tower equipped to support space flight operations. And, TexSpace, a recently established non-profit, encourages aerospace firms and support companies to relocate to or start up in Houston. Soon Commercial space travel is coming for the adventurous and another lunar landing. We Houston is a wonderful city in which to watch and participate in the next phases of space exploration.