“Houston: Space City, USA,” by Ray Viator, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 224 pages, $37
Houston and America’s manned space program are inescapably intertwined. The Manned Spaceflight Center (today’s Johnson Space Center), which runs all of NASA manned missions, is in Houston. The first word spoken by a human from another planet was “Houston.” The city gives major sports teams space-related names like Astros and Rockets.
“Houston: Space City, USA,” by Ray Viator, explores that connection in an extended photo-essay. It arrives just in time for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.
Viator, a long-time Houston media figure, combines history, science and culture. He starts out by looking at the history of NASA in Houston, focusing on the Apollo 11 moon landing. He goes well beyond that, however. Subsequent sections look at the impact hosting the Johnson Space Center has had on the city of Houston and its environs.
His exploration of space’s impact on Houston isn’t limited to rocket-related activities. He explores the impact of space on Houston’s research communities — institutions of higher education, medical research, and the whole spectrum of science research. He also looks at the impact the Johnson Space Center has had on Houston’s art community and its culture. He shows how Houston has embraced the concept of being Space City into its music, its architecture, and its visual arts.
He underscores his thesis with an eye-popping array of photographs. Many are his own. Some, especially when historical images are needed, come from a variety of other sources including NASA, the Houston Public Library archives or other local photographers.
The book mixes wonder with whimsy. Photographs showing the latest-greatest space technology, prominent figures in space history, reverential monuments and buildings significant to Houston’s space history are placed in proximity to space-themed Lego constructions, larger-than-life space-suited manikins selling stuff, or humorous space-themed murals. Viator also makes use of every opportunity to photograph the moon in proximity to some Houston activity.
Viator wanted to recapture the wonder of the 1960s space program and the sheer amount of fun space has provided Houston and Houston residents over the last 50 years. “Houston: Space City, USA” succeeds admirably in achieving that goal.