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 …