NASA, the Astros, and a Dream of the Future

The Johnson Space Center helped change the image of the Houston Astros from the western-themed Colt 45s. (via NASA.gov)

The morning of Thursday, November 2, 2017, dawned warm and humid in Houston, Texas, the air buzzing with victory. The night before, the Houston Astros had shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Seven of the World Series by a commanding score of 5-1. It was the first World Series title for the franchise and their first appearance in the Fall Classic since getting swept by the White Sox in 2005. Still recovering after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, which had caused catastrophic flooding in the city in August and displaced tens of thousands of residents, the Astros victory felt especially deserved in Houston. 

While the team itself was in Los Angeles for the back half of the series, I was in Houston for the first time ever. I had traveled to Texas to work in the NASA archives housed at the University of Houston and visit Johnson Space Center as part of the research for my dissertation on the history of the U.S. space program.

At virtually any other time in my life, it wouldn’t have made any difference to me where I was during the World Series, and I wouldn’t have known or cared who was playing. But while baseball had only recently come into my life when I scheduled my Houston trip, it already had a hold on me. I made a point of being back at my Airbnb each night in time to catch the game, and I imagined the sound of the city coming alive around me as I watched the last out on Wednesday night.

The morning after Game Seven, I had planned to make my first ever visit to Johnson Space Center after almost a decade of studying the space program. As a researcher, I was able to arrange a special behind-the-scenes tour. As I pulled into the visitor’s center just before the security checkpoint, I could see on my left the long, low shape of the hangar-like structure I knew housed a complete Saturn V Rocket lying on its side. Rising above the campus was Building 2, a slick, iconic modernist layer cake of an office building I had only ever seen on vintage postcards and Google Maps. Somewhere beyond, I knew, was Building 30 and Historic Mission Control. My tour guide, JSC Historian Dr. Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, greeted me at Johnson Space Center in a piercingly orange Astros T-shirt. “It’s a good day to be in Houston,” she told me with a grin as we set off.

We drove to the main quad, a rectangle of grass, trees, and pebbly sidewalks ringed by aging low-slung office buildings numbered in bold sans-serif. Johnson Space Center originally was constructed in the early 1960s as NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center. As we walked from building to building, Dr. Ross-Nazzal told me the pebbled sidewalks had been especially despised by the women who worked for NASA at a time when high heels were expected. I made notes about design details like floor-to-ceiling terrazzo-clad lobbies and suspended staircases, which heightened my sense of stepping into a midcentury modern past.

Part of the agency’s massive expansion in order to achieve a lunar landing by the end of the decade, the Manned Spacecraft Center was planned as a high-tech, modern facility for the design and construction of spacecraft components, the training of astronauts, and the planning and administration of human spaceflight. NASA began migrating spaceflight operations and personnel to Houston in 1962 as soon as the new location had been decided.

NASA brought with it national prestige and an influx of NASA and aerospace industry jobs. Houston’s Rice University also promised a continuous pipeline of credentialled scientists and engineers, not to mention the donation of 1000 acres Rice offered to NASA to build new facilities in the suburb of Clear Lake. Using relatively new construction methods like pre-cast concrete paneling and outfitted with modernist fixtures and details, the Manned Spacecraft Center was meant to evoke the aesthetics of midcentury modernism appropriate to its high-tech, future-oriented mission.

The look of the Manned Spacecraft Center was fitting for a space agency facility, but it also fitted into the shifting image of the city of Houston in the 1960s. Founded in the 19th century by land speculators, Houston experienced almost continuous growth since the discovery of the Spindletop oil field at the turn of the century, and petroleum production dominated the economy at midcentury. Like other large cities in the United States, Houston had undergone a profound transformation after the war as suburban development boomed. NASA’s home in Clear Lake, usually referred to as “Houston,” is actually 22 miles from the city center. 

At almost the same moment the city of Houston was gleefully opening its arms to NASA, Roy Hofheinz, the former mayor of Houston, was planning another huge project for the city. In 1962, the same year the bulk of NASA’s personnel —  and the astronauts — moved to Houston, Major League Baseball also came to the city. Part of the National League expansion that created the New York Mets, the newly christened Colt 45’s were a nod to Houston’s Wild West image. Hofheinz, who was well connected in Houston politics and business, had a vision for a magnificent domed stadium that would not only protect players and fans from the oppressive heat and humidity of south Texas summers but reshape the very image of the city itself and propel it into the space-age future. 

But like NASA’s facilities, the Astrodome would take time to complete, and the Colt 45s needed somewhere to play in the meantime. A temporary stadium was built close to the construction site and, as scholar Benjamin Lisle reports, decked out in a positively rootin-tootin Wild West fashion. Fans parked in lot sections with names like “Wyatt Earp Territory” and paid attendants sporting orange cowboy hats. Inside, they were directed to their seats by women ushers called “Triggerettes” to the sound of a Dixieland band. The stadium’s private club was called the Fast Draw Club, complete with a saloon girl on a swing above the bar. On offer were beverages like “Cow Puncher Coffee” and an array of souvenirs featuring the team’s Colt 45 six-shooter logo.

The domed stadium under construction nearby would literally change the way people saw Houston and transform the city’s image from backward-looking oil boomtown to visionary space-age city of the future. Hofheinz was inspired by futurist and architect Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic domes were a staple of space-age design. Convinced by Fuller it was possible to construct a dome of any size with sufficient resources, Hofheinz pitched his ideas to business and government leaders, and construction began in 1962 as the Colts played their inaugural season.

At the same time, NASA was in the process of leasing temporary facilities and moving its human space flight operations to Texas as construction began on its own addition to the new space age of Houston. The Manned Spacecraft Center hosted a public open house in 1964, just a year before the completion of the Astrodome. MSC resembled a “corporate campus” typical of large companies at the time, with a cluster of office buildings, fabrication shops, testing facilities and amenities like a credit union and a cafeteria, all arranged on pleasingly landscaped lawns abutting an artificial lake.

Visitors to the open house viewed static displays of spacecraft, watched films about the operations of the new center, and got an up-close look at astronaut Scott Carpenter’s spacesuit. With the spectacular promises of the Apollo lunar program on the horizon, Houston seemed poised to be a major player in a new high-tech future. And in honor of this new role for the city, the Colt 45’s were renamed the Houston Astros in 1965 and played their first exhibition game against the Yankees on April 9.

Even more so than the comparatively corporate MSC, the completed Astrodome was a marvel of mid-century modernist design. Enclosing more than nine acres in air-conditioned comfort, the dome’s roof stretched 642 feet across the inside, with available seating for more than 45,000 baseball fans and even more for football and other events to be held in the multi-use space. In 1960s dollars, the price tag for the new stadium was $35 million, with $2 million of that spent on the 474-foot wide electronic scoreboard, which was programmed with spectacular animated displays for home runs. The domed roof was studded with skylights to let in natural light to feed the grass on the ballfield. The Astrodome, like NASA’s new facilities, seemed to embody all the promise and technological marvels the 1960s had to offer.

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For all its sleekness, even the Astrodome was not spared Hofheinz’s campy taste: groundskeepers wore space suits, and ballpark staff were decked out in specially designed, futuristic uniforms. The air-conditioned comfort of indoor baseball, the luxurious appointments of the stadium, ample parking and the spectacular technology of the dome itself were symbols of Houston’s growing national status and the role the city would play in the space-age future.

But just as the shine of NASA eventually wore off as the Apollo program came to an end and the seemingly aimless Space Shuttle era began, the Astrodome, too, was not wholly the vision of futuristic engineering Hofheinz had hoped for. Ballplayers reported that the complex structure of girders and crossbeams that made up the ceiling, combined with glare from the skylights, made it impossible to field fly balls. When the skylights were occluded to improve play, the grass began to die and had to be replaced with artificial grass that came to be known as the now-familiar AstroTurf. And while the new artificial playing surface seemed in line with the futurism of the dome itself, many fans, already wary of such innovations as playing at night, took the new turf as a sign of the Astrodome’s incompatibility with the traditions of baseball.

In 2000, the Astros moved into a new, retractable-roof stadium in downtown Houston that was built by Brown & Root, the same firm that oversaw the construction of the Manned Spacecraft Center nearly 40 years previous. Eight years later, in a state of severe disrepair, the Astrodome was closed indefinitely. Since then, numerous plans to refurbish the stadium have been proposed, but today the iconic dome remains empty and unused. Johnson Space Center, while today still busy with the administration of the U.S. components of the International Space Station and proposed future missions to the moon and Mars, also houses some ghosts of a future past. 

Near the end of our tour, Dr. Ross-Nazzal and I paused in front of Building 30 so I could photograph the pre-cast concrete screen that shaded the glass-fronted walkway between the building’s two wings. Inside was “Historic Mission Control,” which had, like the Astrodome, recently been sealed off from visitors. We climbed a back staircase, lingering in the shadow entry of the press box behind Mission Control as a tour group filed out. Through the large windows at the front, I could see the greenish computer consoles, swept clean of overflowing ashtrays but otherwise the same indelible image of 1960s spaceflight. I thought about the Astrodome and Historic Mission Control, two monuments to a fleeting feeling of a future that seemed over before it really began, and a city caught up in the drift and tide of history. 


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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

It was a merger between Major League Baseball and the Jetsons. And it did not end well. They forgot a simple truth: baseball is about the past and not the future.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I’m a huge space buff as well as baseball fan so your dissertation sounds interesting. Both the space program and the Astrodome strike me as sort of relics of a time when Americans believed that they could do great things simply through force of will. Unfortunately, some of that attitude led to disasters such as Vietnam.

numberpower
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Member
numberpower

Thank for a great essay. Love the details about the uniforms of the staff at the Astrodome.