NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in located in Houston, Texas. What were the site selection criteria, and what contenders were there other than Houston?

The center is named for Lyndon B. Johnson. He enthusiastically supported the civilian space program in his roles as Senate majority leader (1955-1961), Vice President (1961-1963), chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, and 36th President of the United States (1963-1969). Did Johnson influence the decision to locate the MSC in his home state, or to take mission control away from Florida?

Derived from comments in this question.


First things first: Lyndon Johnson had very little, if anything, to do with the site selection for what was then called the Manned Space Center. The selection of the current location of what is now known as the Johnson Space Center was made in September 1961, over two years before President Kennedy was assassinated. It was a very common ploy in those days for a presidential candidate to choose a highly ranked opponent from that candidate's own party as one's running mate. The intent was to put that opponent in a meaningless/powerless job that the opponent could nonetheless not refuse.

NASA appointed a site selection committee to evaluate candidate sites. The criteria submitted to Congress included

  1. Access to water transport by large barges,
  2. A moderate climate,
  3. Availability of all-weather commercial jet service,
  4. A well-established industrial complex with supporting technical facilities and labor,
  5. Close proximity to a culturally attractive community in the vicinity of an institution of higher education,
  6. A strong electric utility and water supply,
  7. At least 1,000 acres of land, and
  8. Low cost to the government.

The committee initially selected nine sites. The site where Johnson Space Center is located was not on that initial list. (A Houston site was on the list, but it was a tens of miles away from JSC's location.) Politics most certainly did play a hand in this. That initial list of nine sites was quickly expanded to 23 thanks to political intervention.

One of those political interventions was by Olin Teague, then the representative of Texas' 6th Congressional District. He (and others) convinced Rice University to donate 1620 acres of land to NASA for the purposes of putting humans (or at the time, men) into space. The land would revert to Rice as soon as NASA stopped using it for this purpose. Per the selection committee's checklist, this vaulted that site to the second spot on their list. No other political intervention came close to this.

The first choice on the committee's list was MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida. The Air Force had been planning on shuttering this base. This made that site extremely attractive. It strongly hit every bullet on the checklist, and the cost was essentially non-existent. But then the Air Force decided not to close the base after all. (MacDill remains an Air Force base to this day.) That pushed the number two choice to the top position.

What about what is now known as the Kennedy Space Center? That site was never on the committee's list. It failed on several criteria. One of the key reasons Cape Canaveral was chosen as a launch site was that it was far removed from civilization at that time. What is now known as KSC was run at that time from Marshall Space Flight Center as one of its remote sites. The site on the list that was closest to the Cape was Jacksonville, Florida, and it too suffered from "close proximity to a culturally attractive community in the vicinity of an institution of higher education." Higher education in northern Florida at that time meant trade school education beyond high school.

What about the criteria themselves? A canal had to be cut to make the site where JSC is located to make that site viable. As far as I can tell, that canal has never been used for the intended purpose. That Houston qualified as having a moderate climate Boston didn't seems to be a stretch. Perhaps one of committee members didn't like his wintertime work assignments in Boston? The other criteria make eminent sense.

  • $\begingroup$ And now the single worst post office in the entire USA is named after Teague (along with the auditorium at JSC). $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble May 18 at 12:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ What is a "culturally attractive community"? $\endgroup$ – jpmc26 May 18 at 13:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @jpmc26 great barbecue $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble May 18 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ For commentary regarding Johnson having done the same thing described in the second half of your first paragraph, see youtube.com/watch?v=hUnHZAUR6hE. $\endgroup$ – prl May 18 at 13:46

Supplementary answer: the political role that Albert Thomas played in the site selection was not mentioned in the accepted answer.

That includes the reason the Johnson Space Center, originally known as the Manned Spacecraft Center—was put in Houston in the first place. The year that Kennedy proposed traveling to the moon, 1961, it happened that U.S. Senator Albert Thomas, a Democrat and protégé of Johnson’s, was the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. And he made it clear to the administration that if they wanted funding for their space program, Houston would need to do well by it. “The road to the moon is through Houston,” Thomas said at the time.

Quoted from here

The linked Wikipedia article states flat out

Albert Richard Thomas (April 12, 1898 – February 15, 1966) was a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Houston, Texas, for 29 years and was responsible for bringing the Johnson Space Center to Houston.

(emphasis mine)

John F. Kennedy, speaking in Houston, the day before he was killed:

But in any case, the United States next month will have a leadership in space which it wouldn't have without Albert Thomas. And so will this city.


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