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Shuttle Disaster

A shared space mission, but worlds apart

Kennedy and Johnson space centers work together, but have very different cultures.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN and KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003


As the Columbia tragedy covered the nation in sadness last week, no one seemed to shed more tears than the 19,000 federal employees and 140,000 private contractors who share a $14-billion budget and a passion for space exploration.

Within the far-flung NASA family, though, most of the burden fell to its leading siblings, a pair of sprawling space centers at opposite ends of the Sunbelt that grew up during the Cold War.

One inhabits Florida's Atlantic seashore, the other a prairie along the Texas gulf coast -- though now the nation knows they are but 16 minutes apart by way of a homebound shuttle.

Jointly responsible since the early 1960s for U.S. manned space missions, both space centers will loom large in the Columbia investigation, just as both provided backdrops for this week's mournful public tributes.

Though NASA labors on the edges of public consciousness, any American who has seen a rocket launch on television senses the role of each place in the space program.

It is the job of the Kennedy Space Center near Titusville to prepare NASA's vehicles for flight and send them skyward against a canvass of smoke and Florida sky. Once the ship clears the tower, the Johnson Space Center, better known as "Houston," takes over from Mission Control, the famed auditorium filled with monitors and maps and workers who speak an alphabet soup of NASA terms.

When the space ship returns, Kennedy welcomes the astronauts back to earth. But it is Johnson that brings them home. Soon after landing, they are flown to Houston, where they live and train.

This division of duties, forged in the early days of the space program, has created two intersecting communities with similar backgrounds but different cultures and a rivalry with roots in the NASA pecking order.

"They have the astronauts that fly, but we have the hardware," said Bob Giffen, a retired engineer who worked on NASA programs for 35 years through private contractors such as Lockheed, spending most of his time at Kennedy Space Center.

He said of Johnson Space Center: "They're the ones that get all the glory."

Few would argue that.

When Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong reported, "The Eagle has landed," he began with the greeting "Houston" -- the first word spoken on the moon. Later, the Apollo 13 help call, "Houston, we've had a problem," become an everyday expression.

The gap between the two centers also can be measured in dollars. Johnson received about $4-billion of NASA's Human Space Flight budget last year while Kennedy captured less than $800-million.

Billing itself as "America's gateway to the universe," Kennedy is home to thousands of engineers and technicians who prepare space shuttles for launch, assembling the systems that propel the ships into space. Johnson, in contrast, is home to more designers and upper managers. It is where NASA's astronauts are based, spending comparatively little time in Florida.

"They're more the academic, design, probably the white scarf and gloves type guys -- kind of above us," said Charlie Mars, a retired NASA manager who lives in Titusville and remembers being on the phone with Houston each morning.

"When they come down they always want to get their hands on the hardware," he said. "They'd say, "We designed that hardware, that belongs to us.' We said, "No it doesn't belong to you. It doesn't belong to us either. It actually belongs to the government and you can't touch it.' "

The aptly named Mr. Mars recalled a tense moment when a Houston design engineer came to Kennedy to discuss a piece of space hardware. "He was going to go over there and start messing with it," Mars said. "I wouldn't have hit him because he's bigger than me, but I wouldn't mind calling security."

The feeling can cut both ways.

When Texas management from NASA visits Kennedy, many opt to stay in nearby Cocoa Beach, not Titusville.

"It was like being near a beach that had the smell of rotten eggs," said Dan Mangieri, 70, a retired engineer for NASA and McDonald Douglas who lives in Clear Lake, the Houston suburb that is home to the Johnson Space Center.

"I don't mean to be critical in any way," said Claudette Alderman, president of the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, who visited Titusville in 1975 and 1995 to watch liftoffs, "but I thought it looked kind of old."

On that, there is no argument from Suzanne DuBeau, 46, who grew up a "space brat" in Titusville and was part of the first class at Astronaut High in 1972, where 80 percent of the families drew their livelihood from the space center.

"Titusville was a fun place to be, but it has never gotten back the spirit it had," she said.

In the early 1960s, before Johnson Space Center was built, Mission Control was in Florida and so were the Mercury astronauts, a brash gang of former test pilots who partied in Cocoa Beach and cruised in Corvettes.

Schools were bursting, churches flourished and two shopping malls opened with new restaurants and stores.

It lasted until 1972, when Apollo 17 blasted off just after midnight Dec. 7, the last of the moon missions. There would not be another manned space flight for nine years.

By May, DuBeau's father, a Rockwell International technician, had been laid off at Kennedy. By June, her family was headed to a NASA facility in California to work on a new space machine: the Columbia. It was DuBeau's senior year, and the insecurity of NASA life remains with her today.

DuBeau moved back to Titusville six years ago. She works for a water engineering company but would never get a space job. Too risky.

"Apollo 17 was the prettiest launch I have ever seen to this day," she said, "but it was also the end in many ways."

Titusville was still recovering from Apollo's end when the Challenger blew up in 1986, shutting down the shuttle program for more than two years.

It remains a town that has seen better days. The two malls along U.S. 1 struggle to attract shoppers. The motels offer "Free HBO" as the chief amenity. Even the space center shows signs of wear. On a recent visit to a NASA office there, DuBeau was struck by new computers set atop 1960s linoleum.

Even Congress has noticed. U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, said in a hearing last year that launch facilities at Kennedy were an embarrassment. "We can't let a place that once symbolized all that was shiny and futuristic decay into a scrap yard," he said.

Though time has passed it by, Titusville and surrounding areas of Brevard County remain steeped in space culture.

Groups of retirees from NASA and various contractors meet monthly for lunch or dinner. When they speak of their careers, the time is marked by names of NASA space programs: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Shuttle.

Last week, as NASA spoke of the delicate tiles on Columbia's underside, you could hold one for yourself at the U.S. Space Walk Hall of Fame, a bright spot in the fading Miracle City Mall. The miracle, locals joke, is that the mall stays open.

As it happens, the tile on display was from Columbia. Where else but Titusville?

There, DuBeau felt a strong connection to her late father when the Columbia broke up. "There goes daddy's ship," she cried.

A similar community lies in east Texas.

In the shadow of Houston where cow pastures stood, a seed was planted 40 years ago. And from the Johnson Space Center sprang a small world.

NASA's campus next to Rice University opened in 1962, with its monolithic architecture and patriotic mission, a proud moment in the Cold War. The first inhabitants were not thrilled with the humid environs, downwind from petroleum factories and a paper mill. But the locals treated them like royalty.

A NASA contingent awoke one morning to find Stetson hats for all, gifts from a department store. Banks offered 24-hour cash for NASA employees in a time before ATMs.

Up went houses, down went roads. Farmers were pushed to the periphery. In their wake came a wave of engineers, designers, M.D.s and Ph.D.s, eager for the all-American suburban lifestyle. They brought children and disposable incomes. Many settled in Clear Lake City, which bordered NASA to the northwest.

It was a company town and NASA had the allegiance of the transplants, not Houston. The newcomers saw the big city as incidental, if a nice bonus.

By the late 1970s, Houston saw the fat tax base immediately to the south and made a run at annexing Clear Lake City and NASA. Residents fought back by attempting to incorporate.

But after a yearslong battle in court, Houston came out the winner. Some bitterness lingers.

"They annexed a finger," said Carole Knochel, who moved to Clear Lake City with her husband, Jack, in 1971. "And we're not saying which finger."

The aerospace industry remains the biggest employer, but it is no longer the only game in town. Petrochemical and biochemical companies have arrived. Tourism generates jobs, too.

The Clear Lake area has a population of 200,000, generally younger, more educated and better paid than its Houston counterparts.

But the academialike informality that NASA pioneers brought here persists. The area remains stubbornly unsleek. It's something of a source of pride.

"If we want to go to Neiman's or Saks, we have to go to the Galleria (mall)," in downtown Houston, said Alderman, the chamber president.

With the lastest newcomers, the greater NASA community has been noticeably diluted. "In our neighborhood, we're probably the only NASA people now," said Jack Knochel, sitting in Frenchie's Italian Restaurant, a thriving holdover from the early days, where autographed photos of astronauts line the walls.

Now, with the nation's attention drawn elsewhere, plenty of people in the community wouldn't recognize an astronaut if they saw one.

The NASA core hasn't entirely come to grips with that, said Geren Cooper, who arrived 20 years ago from Oklahoma and went to work for NASA during the late 1980s as a computer specialist.

"I think they're anxious about not being appreciated or recognized," he said. "Their own self-importance may be a little bit higher than it should be."

Still, the NASA roots are strong. Clear Lake's original residents had heeded the government's call for a race to the moon and made it a goal in their lives.

"Every one of us has the dream to explore space ourselves," said NASA engineer Howard Wagner, who moved to the area 20 years ago from Oregon, "and this is as close as we get."

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER

Beginnings: Announced Sept. 19, 1961, as the site of NASA's new Space Flight Laboratory, topping a list of 23 cities. Later named for President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who championed U.S. space exploration as a U.S. senator.

Staff: 3,000 federal employees, mostly engineers and scientists. About 110 are astronauts. An additional 12,000 work for private contractors.

Fun facts: In 1961, Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base topped the list of a site selection team for the space center. Houston was second, but jumped to the top when the Air Force decided to keep MacDill open. Houston also had the support of then-Vice President Johnson and four Texas congressmen in power positions.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER

Beginnings: President Truman established a missile test site at Cape Canaveral in 1949. President Eisenhower gave the site to NASA in 1959. Center was renamed in December 1963, just weeks after President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Staff: 1,877 NASA employees and 15,000 employees from private contractors.

Fun facts: In 1959, as scientists conducted tests that would lead to the first U.S. manned space flights from Kennedy, officials debated what to call the crews. Early on, the favored term was "cosmonauts" but "astronauts" won the day. Government doctors urged that the first astronauts be chosen from dangerous professions such as auto racing and scuba diving. Eisenhower decided they should be military test pilots.

-- SOURCES: NASA; Suddenly Tomorrow Came: A History of the Johnson Space Center, by Henry C. Dethloff; Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast.

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