Skip to main content

"Houston, Tranquility Base Here. The Eagle has Landed."

Published Jul 03, 2019 by Josh Pherigo

The First Word

When the struts of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module met the powdery surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong marked the arrival with an eight-word message back home. 

“Houston,” Armstrong said. “Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.” 

The time was 3:17 p.m. at mission control – four days, six hours and forty-six minutes after liftoff and more than eight years after President John F. Kennedy first challenged America to aim for the moon. The Apollo 11 crew had traveled 240,000 miles from Earth aboard the most complex machine ever conceived – guided by the most sophisticated computers ever built and boosted by the most powerful rocket ever launched – only to come within 30 seconds of running out of fuel. 

“Roger, Tranquility. We copy you down,” came the reply from Charlie Duke in mission control. “You got a bunch of guys down here about to turn blue.” 

On Earth, more than half a billion people watched as the moon landing unfolded in real-time. For Americans, it was a staggering victory of science and technology, the fulfillment of a mammoth national effort to accomplish humanity’s greatest-ever journey. For Houstonians, it was personal. 

No city did more to put men on the moon, and no city took more pride in its accomplishment. 

At the executive committee meeting of the Houston Chamber of Commerce (predecessor to the Greater Houston Partnership) the morning after the landing, chamber president E. Clyde McGraw described the “extremely thrilling” events of that week and pointed out that a local newspaper columnist observed that “Houston” had been the first word spoken from the moon. 

“Every mission points up even more Houston’s close identification with the manned space program,” McGraw said.

As the center of gravity for the U.S. space program, the Manned Space Center (renamed Johnson Space Center in ’73) oversaw every facet of the planning, design, training and execution of the Apollo moon missions. It was, quite literally, at the center of a worldwide communications network designed specifically to control and monitor the moon missions. On the day of the Apollo 11 landing, a 2-million-mile web of underground and ocean-laid cables connected Houston to radar and antenna stations across the globe – an unprecedented feat at the time. 

From Houston, engineers helped invent the techniques and procedures necessary to make deep space flight possible, and mission planners tediously orchestrated the work of more than 20,000 NASA contractors across the country. At the height of its activity the Apollo program employed more than 500,000 Americans at an annual cost of $4 billion (equivalent to $32 billion today). The burden of managing that massive effort, keeping those moving parts aligned and on scheduled fell largely on the shoulders of Houston residents, as did the job of actually flying the missions. 

Fifty years after Apollo 11’s historic landing, no city has so emphatically embraced its lunar legacy like Houston. We named our sports teams and our theme parks after space iconography; worked NASA designs into our architecture and our community spaces, painted it in murals across our buildings; we adopted the nickname “Space City” with pride. But years before we could lay claim as the first word spoken from the moon, Houston was just one of 20 cities vying for a government construction project – the HQ2 of its day. 

Apollo 11 crew
The Apollo 11 crew. From left to right Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins.

Why Houston? 

By the fall of 1961, the U.S. had fallen badly behind the Soviets in the race for space supremacy. Though both nations had completed two manned missions apiece, NASA had yet to put an astronaut in orbit, a critical feat the Soviets achieved on the very first manned flight in April. Worse still: the short, parabolic arcs of NASA’s first two Mercury flights had lasted just 15 minutes each. America’s space program had less than half-an-hour of manned flight under its belt - fewer than 10 minutes in zero-gravity. The Soviets, on the other hand, had amassed a staggering 27 hours of flight time in their first two missions (it would take the U.S. another two years to accumulate that amount). 

President Kennedy had recognized early on that in the high-stakes context of the escalating Cold War, outer-space was the newest battlefield. That spring Kennedy had pushed Congress for a massive increase in space funding, deeming it a defensive necessity (NASA’s budget would double by ‘63 and quadruple by ‘65), and for the first time, Kennedy laid out his charge for the U.S. to achieve a moon landing “before the decade is out.” 

To get there, NASA would need a new, dedicated campus capable of housing the sprawling apparatus required to develop the science and techniques making a moon mission possible. That’s the charge NASA site selectors carried to Houston in late August 1961. Houston was one of at least 20 cities under consideration for the Manned Space Center, a $60 million facility ($480 million in today’s money) that would employ 3,000 government workers and serve as the lynchpin for the entire space program. The prospect of such an economic injection had local leaders salivating. 

Houston Chamber of Commerce President P. H. Robinson, who met with NASA’s site selection team during their visit, promised that the Chamber was “available to furnish whatever assistance needed,” as the evaluators did their work. NASA’s specific requirements for the new site included the nearby presence of a large and skilled labor force, access to deepwater transportation routes and a nearby airport, reasonable local building costs, a reliable electric and communications grid, and the availability of temporary office space to house NASA staff while the manned space center was under construction. 

The space agency was in a hurry, and they didn’t have to wait long. 

On Tuesday, September 19, 1961, three weeks after the Houston site visit, NASA administrator James Webb announced that a cattle pasture near the farming town of Clear Lake, 25 miles southeast of downtown Houston would become the permanent site of NASA’s manned space center – home to mission control and the nation’s astronaut corps. NASA officials said the Houston region and the site itself - a 1,300-acre section of land mostly owned by Rice University - met each of the agency’s 14 requirements, beating out competing cities like Corpus Christi and San Diego. 

It helped that Houston had a couple of political aces up its sleeve. Legendary local businessman and LBJ loyalist George R. Brown, whose construction firm Brown and Root would eventually build much of the Manned Space Center, took an active interest in the direction of the space program from its infancy. When Kennedy, in the spring of ‘61, asked Vice President Johnson to recommend a course forward for the space program – an effort that generated the moonshot goal  –  Brown was one of only a handful of civilians invited to participate in a closed-door strategy session in Washington. As the chair of Rice University’s board of regents, he facilitated the deal that would provide land for the Space Center. Humble Oil Company (now ExxonMobil) had donated 1,000 acres to Rice years before for the express purpose of serving as a space research center. Rice, in turn, simply donated the land to NASA. 

The other leading force in Houston’s corner was Texas Congressman Albert Thomas. As chair of the appropriations committee, the powerful congressman is credited with steering the selection toward Houston. Taking a hands-on approach, he personally hosted the NASA site selectors around Houston during their August fact-finding mission, later assuring Chamber president Robinson that Houston had a “good chance” of winning the bid.  The morning of the announcement, it was Thomas who first phoned Robinson with the good news. 

Upon hearing the news, the chamber execs were fired up. Straight away, the chamber’s vice president Marvin Hurley ordered “1,000 copies of material related to Houston” airmailed to NASA headquarters in Virginia for distribution to the relocating employees, according to the minutes of the executive committee meeting that day. 

The October edition of Houston magazine, a publication of the Chamber, trumpeted the arrival of the forthcoming “Space Lab” which it said would include “an enormous domed structure, which can contain a space capsule one-third as tall as the San Jacinto Monument.” The facility’s 3,000 employees, the article said, would draw a payroll more than $17 million per year ($136 million today), not counting the many outside firms supporting NASA’s work.  

Within weeks, the first wave of NASA employees had already arrived, setting up temporary headquarters in offices around the city. And more were on their way.

Learn how Houston continues to develop new paths of innovation and get details on the Houston Spaceport, which will be the largest urban spaceport of its kind. 

Related News

Economic Development

Houston's Role in Global Energy Transition a Major Focus of Greater Houston Partnership Annual Meeting

1/23/20
HOUSTON (January 22, 2020) - Greater Houston Partnership 2020 Board Chair Bobby Tudor outlined how the organization will work to ensure Houston plays a key role in the global energy transition at the Partnership’s annual meeting on January 22.  Read the remarks from Bobby Tudor and Bob Harvey and see Bobby Tudor's slide presentation. Watch the full meeting below.  Maintaining Houston’s place as the Energy Capital of the World requires that the region’s business and civic leaders address the dual challenge of meeting expanding global energy demand while lowering the world’s carbon footprint, said Tudor, Chairman of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. LLC, an energy investment and advisory firm.  “The economic vitality and growth of our region’s economy is inextricably tied to the energy industry,” Tudor said, adding that the Partnership and its members “should use our convening power to rally our companies, political leaders and fellow citizens to position Houston as the city that will lead this energy transition.” The Partnership will launch a new initiative aimed at accelerating Houston’s activity around energy transition, while existing committees will continue efforts to bring energy tech and renewable energy companies to Houston; explore the policy dimensions of carbon capture, use, and storage; and advocate for legislation that helps ensure the Texas Gulf Coast is positioned as a leader in that technology.  Houston business leaders have a responsibility to lead the transition to a cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable, lower carbon world, Tudor said. “We need to be the driver, not the passenger.”  Highlighting some of the changes and milestones reached in Houston over the last decade*, Partnership President and CEO Bob Harvey said that while the last 10 years were transformational for Houston, the next decade may be to be even more critical to the region’s long-term success. “I believe the decisions we make and the work we do together in the next few years will determine the trajectory of Houston for the next several decades and beyond,” Harvey said.  2019 Key Accomplishments  The Partnership’s 2019 Board Chair, Scott McClelland, said he was pleased with the organization’s successful efforts on major initiatives last year. Through its public policy committees, the Partnership influenced key bills during the 86th Texas Legislative Session, including House Bill 3 that brought $5 billion in new state funding into the public education system and Senate Bill 7 that resulted in $2 billion in state funding for statewide recovery and future flood mitigation.  “If there’s one big thing I learned over the last year, it’s that the key to making this city better for everyone is having a lot of Houstonians involved in the effort,” said McClelland, president of H-E-B. “There’s power in numbers. It’s a force multiplier.”  Harvey also pointed to Houston’s recent success in bolstering its innovation ecosystem—a move critical to the region’s ability to compete with other global cities. Last summer, Rice University broke ground on The Ion, a 270,000-square-foot innovation center that will anchor the broader 16-acre South Main Innovation District. Other startup incubators and accelerators have opened their doors throughout the city in recent months, including MassChallenge, The Cannon, Gener8tor, Plug and Play and more. The Partnership also played a role in fintech company Bill.com opening its first office outside of Silicon Valley here in Houston in September.  In January 2019, the Partnership launched a new strategic initiative, Houston Next, and a complementary $50 million capital campaign to support the effort. Designed to advance Houston’s position as a great global city, the plan focuses on three core areas: creating a strong, diverse 21st-century economy, ensuring a great quality of life and supporting opportunity for all. Houston Next aims to empower local business leaders to accelerate the region’s progress at the intersection of those three areas of impact and ensure Houston’s continued success. Harvey said the Partnership is well underway toward meeting its Houston Next objectives and reported that the campaign has raised $25 million, half of its goal.  See the Partnership’s full 2019 Annual Report for additional facts and figures. *The last decade was one of the most transformative in Houston’s history. Consider:  •    The region added more than 1.1 million residents over the last 10 years an increase of more than 18 percent.  •    Houston became the most diverse city in the nation, now led by its Hispanic population and the fastest growing Asian population in America.  •    The Houston region added $64 billion to its GDP, a 17 percent increase in real terms.  •    Foreign trade expanded by nearly $24 billion, making Houston the most trade focused metropolitan area in the nation.  •    Houston added 615,000 net new jobs over the last decade.  ### Greater Houston Partnership  The Greater Houston Partnership works to make Houston one of the best places to live, work and build a business. As the economic development organization for the Houston region, the Partnership champions growth across 11 counties by bringing together business and civic-minded leaders who are dedicated to the area’s long-term success. Representing 1,100 member organizations and approximately one-fifth of the region’s workforce, the Partnership is the place business leaders come together to make an impact. Learn more at Houston.org. CONTACT:         Maggie Martin      Senior Manager, Marketing & Communications      (o) 713-844-3640 mmartin@houston.org      A.J. Mistretta     Vice President, Communications              (o) 713-844-3664 (c) 504-450-3516 | amistretta@houston.org       
Read More
Airports

Houston's Hobby Airport Starts 2020 With New Airline, Maintenance Facility

1/15/20
Houston's William P. Hobby Airport is marking the start of the new year with a couple of big announcements. Earlier this week, Allegiant announced it added Houston as one of a few cities it’ll begin serving in 2020. According to its press release, the new seasonal nonstop routes from Hobby Airport include Knoxville, TN, Asheville, NC, Savannah, GA, and Destin/Fort Walton Beach, FL. Allegiant says it’s also expanding to Boston and Chicago. It’s the largest expansion in the airline’s 23-year history, driven by the company’s focus on leisure travel. Allegiant’s announcement comes just days after Southwest Airlines unveiled a $125 million, 240,000-square-foot maintenance facility at Hobby. It’s the largest in the Dallas-based carrier’s network, and includes offices, training facilities and warehouse space. “It’s proof of our devotion and our dedication to Houston,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said during the grand opening celebration, as reported by the Houston Chronicle. “And the opportunity that we see here, and the excitement that we have to continue to grow.” Kelly told reporters that Houston is one of three key cities where Southwest is focused on adding flights over the next 10 years, according to the Houston Business Journal. Southwest’s CEO said he ultimately wants to connect Houston to South America. “I don’t see that in the next year or so, but definitely down the road it’s something that we would be interested to do,” Kelly said. Houston is the international air gateway to the South Central U.S. and Latin America. With the addition of international air service at Hobby Airport in ’15, Houston became the only city in Texas with two airports offering international service and one of only eight such cities nationwide. According to Houston Facts, domestic travel at Hobby Airport increased by more than 7% to over 13 million passengers in ’18. Airlines that offer direct domestic flights from Hobby include American Airlines, Delta Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines. Southwest is currently the only airline out of Hobby offering direct international flights. The Partnership's 2019 Economic Highlights report says the Houston Airport System (HAS) offers nonstop flights to some 190 domestic and international destinations in 37 countries. Hobby is ranked as the 35th busiest airport in the nation.  Learn more about air transportation in Houston in Houston Facts. Read how Hobby performed last year in the 2019 Economic Highlights report and get a monthly aviation update. 
Read More

Related Events

Digital Technology

Innovation Council

For Houston to continue moving forward as a great global city, we must further the innovation eco-system in order to attract tech and start-up companies. This council examines how the greater Houston region can…

Learn More
Learn More
Executive Partners