A Window to Apollo and Shuttle: What the Johnson Space Center Used to Be Like

written by David Mixson

A year or so before I retired, I traveled to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston for work. This is the NASA center that was in charge of manned space flight during the Apollo and Shuttle programs.

This is where Old Space astronauts lived and trained. This is where flight controllers managed the missions in real time. This is where Gene Kranz said, “Failure is not an option,” during the Apollo 13 mission.1

Window to the Past

My temporary office for the day had a window facing out into a courtyard where sidewalks connected the buildings. As I looked out, I couldn’t help but notice how things inside NASA have changed in the last thirty years.

For a moment, I looked out the window and imagined what it might look like with a charter to land men on the moon by the end of the decade with the urgency to beat the Russians—or else.

In my mind, I could picture a group of young engineers (with white starched shirts and pocket protectors) and eager astronauts hustling around, trying to get everything ready for the risky missions to the moon.

I visited JSC for work several times during the Shuttle era, and it was always full of real purpose and an excitement that’s hard to describe. Engineers looked like they were doing real work that mattered. They walked between buildings with purpose and urgency. The environment felt magical.

Back then, engineers, flight controllers, and crew were constantly preparing for the next Shuttle mission. It didn’t matter so much what the next mission was. It was that there was a real mission approaching.

If I’m honest, sometimes I felt jealous of engineers who worked at JSC because they always seemed more self-actualized than most engineers did at my home NASA center, which did design-type work.

Window to the Present

Now, six years or so after the last Shuttle flight, in my temporary office with a view, I couldn’t stop looking out the window. Everything felt so different.

Engineers walked between buildings with no sense of purpose. People stepped out to smoke with no urgency to get back in. Buildings with simulators that were once used to train Shuttle crews now served as tour stops for visitors on the tram.

Even during my short time there, the tram seemed like a constant reminder of how things used to be. I couldn’t help but feel sad, especially for the engineers who used to work on the Shuttle.

I also couldn’t help but feel a little guilty because my NASA center was the one responsible for designing and building a launch vehicle to replace the Shuttle. Had we done our jobs, JSC engineers and astronauts would still be preparing for an upcoming mission—just on a different launch vehicle.

At that moment, it felt like Old Space NASA was farther from the moon than we were when President Kennedy said we were going there by the end of the decade back in 1962.

A True Story

While I was there, engineers from around the center gathered in a conference room to watch a live stream of a test firing of the launch escape thrusters on the Orion module.

Orion is the capsule that carries crew on top of the Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle that’s part of the Artemis missions. The conference room was mostly full, and I was expecting something big because of all the email hype.

Right on time, what appeared to be three motors fired up and started doing what they were designed to do. The test lasted about 15 seconds, and then it was over. That’s it?

The engineers in the room wanted so desperately to connect with something real, but from the expressions on their faces, it didn’t match the excitement of past real missions where men and women blasted off into space on a Shuttle ride that everyone knew could end in tragedy.

In the day and age of Falcon 9 launches with boosters flying back and landing near the launch pad, this test felt like watching an old black and white commercial with no sound. Watching an average sunset would have been more exciting.

I felt bad for the young engineers in the room who wanted to feel purpose. I was so moved with sadness at the looks on the engineer’s faces that I politely stood up and walked out. I wasn’t in the mood to fake it.

This is what Old Space engineers are asked to get excited about when SpaceX engineers get to feel the accomplishment of sticking a first-stage landing on a barge in the middle of the Atlantic.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, NASA engineers didn’t go to engineering school because we wanted an easy path, and we didn’t come to work at NASA because we wanted a cushy job. We chose a very difficult path because we wanted to make a difference.

And that’s getting harder and harder to do inside NASA.

  1. Gene Krantz never actually said, “Failure is not an option” during the Apollo 13 mission. The phrase was coined by Bill Broyles, one of the screenwriters of the Apollo 13 movie, based on a similar statement made by a member of the Apollo 13 mission control crew, FDO Flight Controller Jerry Bostick.

Read Next

About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

NASAology Notices

Exclusive content. Delivered weekly.

We hate SPAM.

Unsubscribe any time.