The event that launches the plot of Bayou City Burning is a scouting trip to Houston by two men affiliated with NASA and charged with assessing the city as the future site of NASA’s manned space flight command center. They arrive in advance of President Kennedy’s historic speech announcing the moon mission, and well in advance of NASA’s official announcement that it is searching for a site for a new mission control center. Their presence is the result of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering by prominent and powerful Texans. But could that really happen?
According to Henry C. Dethloff, author of Suddenly Tomorrow Came . . . A History of the Johnson Space Center (NASA, 1993), it could and it did. At the time, Lyndon Johnson wielded considerable power, not just as Vice President, but as chair of the Senate. One of Johnson’s protegés in the House, Houston Congressman Albert Thomas, did not chair a major committee, but he chaired the subcommittee that oversaw NASA’s budget; if the budget didn’t pass his subcommittee, it would never get to the House Appropriations Committee, much less to the House floor for approval. Meanwhile, Johnson had insured that one of his major Texas backers, George R. Brown of Brown & Root, sat on the Space Council and was privy to insider information regarding plans for manned space flight. In early 1961, the Mercury Space Program was already underway, and there was a “Manned Lunar Landing Task Group” discussing the possibility of a moon mission. But when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in a Russian-engineered spacecraft on April 12, 1961, everything changed. The time for leisurely contemplation was over; the Space Race was on. The United States had to establish its supremacy in outer space, in the minds of American Cold War strategists.
NASA’s new director James Webb argued for the necessity of creating a separate center for manned spaceflight. Discussions resulted in a $60 million item in the NASA appropriations bill. According to Dethloff, it was Abe Silverstein, founding director of the Goddard Space Flight Center and later director of the Office of Space Flights Program, who first raised the question: “I wonder where Albert Thomas’ district is?” In fact, Thomas had been lobbying NASA directors for years to locate a facility in his district. On May 16, 1961, his wish finally seemed to be coming true: as described in the novel, Philip Miller, Chief of the Facilities Engineering Division for Goddard, and John F. Parsons, Associate Director of the Ames Research Center, paid Houston a visit. The next week, President Kennedy announced the moon mission to a joint session of Congress.
Once specific site criteria for a manned spacecraft center were made public, applications flooded in. In early August, a site selection team chaired by Parsons narrowed the list of contenders to 23 cities, all of which the team visited in the two weeks between August 21st and September 7th. They ranked MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, as their top site. Houston was ranked second. But in very short order a decision was made not to close MacDill as a Strategic Air Command base after all. Was the ranking a ruse? We may never know. In any case, Houston now topped the list.
But wait. In his 1966 memoir, Decisive Years for Houston, Houston Chamber of Commerce executive director Marvin Hurley does not record the May visit by Parsons and Miller, even though in Henry Dethloff’s account, the two men were met at the airport by George Brown and Ed Redding, who was “representing the Houston Chamber of Commerce.” It’s inconceivable that Hurley wouldn’t have known about the visit. But five years later Hurley writes, “Early in June, while on a trip to Washington, I heard rumors of some type of new installation for the nation’s space effort, and made calls at the office of Vice President Johnson and upon Congressmen Albert Thomas and Bob Casey. While the project was still in the planning stage, I was assured that Houston would receive consideration as a location for the project. I was advised that Houston should make every effort to convince any site-selection team visiting the area that it could fully and completely meet the criteria that would be under investigation.”
Who’s right? Dethloff cites as his source a memorandum written by Philip Miller himself and deposited in the Johnson Space Center History Archives. Perhaps Hurley is telling the truth, but not the whole truth. Here is a mystery indeed.