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Small Steps Giant Leaps

A brief history of the Johnson Space Center

Overall view of the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center,  Manned Spacecraft Center showing the flight controllers celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

Johnson Space Center Directors

Robert R. Gilruth

November 1961 – January 1972

Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.

January 1972 – August 1982

Gerald D. Griffin

August 1982 – January 1986

Jesse W. Moore

January 1986 – October 1986

Aaron Cohen

October 1986 – August 1993

Carolyn L. Huntoon

January 1994 – August 1995

George W.S. Abbey

January 1996 – February 2001

Roy S. Estess (Acting Director)

February 2001 – March 2002

Jefferson D. Howell, Jr.

March 2002 – November 2005

Michael L. Coats

November 2005 – December 2012

Ellen Ochoa

January 2013 – May 2018

Mark S. Geyer

May 2018 – May 2021

Vanessa Wyche

June 2021 – Present

In September 1961, only a few months after President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation that the United States would send a man to the Moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade, NASA Administrator James E. Webb announced Houston would be the site of a brand-new spaceflight center dedicated to achieving that goal. Since opening its doors in 1964, the Johnson Space Center, or the Manned Spacecraft Center as it was then called, has designed, developed, and tested the nation’s spacecraft, selected and trained the flight crews, and overseen NASA’s human spaceflight missions at the Mission Control Center. 

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered his historic speech at Rice University, stating:  “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Johnson’s engineers conceived of the spacecraft that made it possible to travel to and return from the lunar surface, developed the world’s first reusable space vehicle, the Space Shuttle, and designed the next-generation spacecraft Orion, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

JSC’s leadership in human spaceflight extends beyond hardware and systems engineering into flight planning, crew training, and support for spaceflight missions. Since 1965, with Gemini IV, flight controllers in the Mission Control Center have monitored and managed missions in real time for NASA’s human spaceflight programs.  These include the historic Moon landings as well as more than a hundred Space Shuttle missions from 1981 to 2011 including the launch of STS-1, the first launch of the Space Shuttle Orbiter. Their efforts continue today with the International Space Station expeditions. With more than 50 years of experience in operations, the team at JSC has developed a plan-train-fly model built on the knowledge learned during the early years of spaceflight. While technology has changed since the sixties, the basic principles remain the same. When faced with extraordinary circumstances, such as the Apollo 13 mission, NASA flight control teams, engineers, and flight crews have demonstrated NASA’s “can do spirit” in accomplishing the mission.   

There’s been a “can do” spirit about this place. “Somehow we’ll find a way.” And I think woven in there is a little bit of the spirit of Texas. There’s a little bit of the frontier independent mentality in the Johnson Space Center that’s very nicely represented by those longhorns that are out there. It’s just another reminder that there is a special spirit about that.

Harvey L. Hartman

Director of Human Resources, 1991-1999, Johnson Space Center

Life scientists at Johnson are world-renowned experts on the impact of microgravity on the human body and the development of counter measures to enable long duration expedition missions. Their studies, conducted on the International Space Station and in JSC laboratories, have demonstrated significant benefits well-beyond the spaceflight community. Challenges associated with the extreme isolation and cold of space can be found in harsh environments on Earth, and the physiological and psychological lessons learned from space research have been successfully applied in similar situations. 

The Longhorn Project began at JSC in 1997 with the release of two  longhorns on the land that was once home to an entire herd.
The Longhorn Project began at JSC began in 1997 with the release of two longhorns on land that was once home to an entire herd. The project is supported by JSC, the Clear Creek Independent School District, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America. Former Center Director George W.S. Abbey was instrumental in bringing the longhorns back to the property.

Finally, Johnson Space Center has led the nation in the preservation and curation of astromaterials for future study, beginning with the Apollo Program and the creation of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. The techniques developed during Apollo have evolved as curators apply new technologies to preserve increasingly diverse sample collections—from the Sun to comets—in specialized facilities. More than 60 years after its creation, Johnson remains in the pioneering business as curators are determining how best to prepare for future sample return missions from Mars and beyond.

Giant leaps continue to be made at Johnson, with its world-class research facilities and employees that make the Center the global leader of human spaceflight.

Astronaut Michael Collins on the right and Richard Wright on the left during tour of Lunar Receiving Lab (LRL) at MSC. (1967)
The Lunar Receiving Lab (LRL), completed in September 1967, housed geological and biological testing laboratories, and served as the Apollo astronaut quarantine facility after the first three successful landing missions returned from the Moon. The glove box system allowed technicians to manually manipulate lunar sample return containers in vacuum chamber cabinets using impermeable gloves built into the chamber wall and tools stored within the primary biological barrier. Astronaut Michael Collins on the right and Richard Wright on the left during tour of LRL.

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