‘No university is more synonymous with NASA than Rice’

In ‘American Moonshot,’ Douglas Brinkley plants Rice’s flag in the history of the space race

“It is fair to say that if not for Rice University, the Johnson Space Center would not exist in Houston,” said historian Douglas Brinkley.

It’s a bold statement, but — as his latest book chronicling the origins of the U.S. program makes abundantly clear — it’s true.

The historian and Katherine Tsanoff Brown Professor in Humanities at Rice explains why in “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race,” set to be published on April 2, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. And the story may surprise you.

Yes, Rice was the site of Kennedy’s famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech, delivered to a crowd of 30,000 to 40,000 at Rice Stadium on a sunny September day in 1962. And yes, Rice was the nation’s first university to establish a Space Science Department, only a year later in 1963.

But the tale of Rice’s role in bringing to Houston the Manned Spacecraft Center — later renamed for President Lyndon B. Johnson — begins half a century earlier in the late 1910’s. In a Rice dormitory, young Albert Thomas and George R. Brown lived together as college roommates. Thomas would become an influential member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Brown would become the richest man in Texas.  As Brinkley points out, it was at Rice that these two powerful men formed a friendship that eventually transformed Houston into Space City.

Brown rose to prominence building dams while working at his brother Herman’s Houston-based company, Brown & Root, which he joined in 1922. But by the 1950s, Brown saw a novel source of revenue on the horizon.

“George Brown quite cleverly recognized that the new infrastructure, the new fed dollars and billion-dollar contracts, would be in aviation and space technology,” Brinkley said. “So he started looking for ways to make Houston a space-age city and how to make Rice part of the ballgame.”

Douglas Brinkle stands on the Rice Stadium field behind the podium where President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous Moon speech in 1962. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Douglas Brinkley stands on the Rice Stadium field behind the lectern where President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous Moon speech in 1962. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

The head of space appropriations money for Congress at the time was none other than Brown’s friend and former roommate, Thomas. Through their collaboration, Rice — and Houston — entered the conversation long before Kennedy ever set foot on the Rice football field.

“It would have made more sense from a pragmatic point of view to build the Manned Space Center at Cape Canaveral right next to the launch site,” Brinkley said. “But Houston put in a hell of a good bid under Brown. They had a research institute here in Rice, they had Ellington Air Force Base, they had a port in case you needed to move parts by barges, the weather was pretty good year-round. There was a logic to it, but it was all because Brown was on top of this really early.”

One of the most interesting discoveries Brinkley made while researching the nascent years of the space program was just how involved Rice was from the very beginning. Rice Centennial Historian Melissa Kean recently found a treasure trove of letters in the university archives and made sure Brinkley was among the first to see them.

What he calls “high-level, secret correspondence” between Rice President W.V. Houston and such key players as Johnson, then a U.S. Senator representing Texas, and W.H. Pickering, then director of the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, took place throughout the late 1950s. One such 1958 letter is excerpted in “American Moonshot” to underscore not only “the importance to the nation of a successful space program” but also its importance with regard to Rice.

“Already in 1958, they were figuring it out here at Rice — that Houston had an excellent chance of being the home for this giant new space center,” Brinkley said.

“No university is more synonymous with NASA than Rice,” he said. “We have a great space science institute here. But more than that, when you’re looking at the journey of going to the moon, Rice is like a flag in the ground.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.