Space has always been a part of Friendswood’s lifeblood.

The small city at the north edge of Galveston County is literally down the road from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The two places came of age together.

Friendswood was incorporated in 1960, and the space center opened in 1961.

So it was inevitable that astronauts eventually would move to Friendswood, and it was not unlikely that former astronauts would emerge as community leaders.

That’s what happened in 2018 with the election of Mike Foreman, a former astronaut, to the mayor’s position.

“People like me found Friendswood, and liked the feel and the charm, and wanted to settle here,” Foreman said.

The relationship between the space agency and the city has been fruitful, Foreman said in February.

For instance, as the city plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which will occur on July 16 this year, organizers have set about putting together a list of people who worked on the program to take part in a speaker series.

In most places, it would be a tall order to find someone so closely connected with the achievement.

In Friendswood, it’s easy.

“We’ve got a list of about 200 people,” Foreman said. “We’re going to have way more people to speak than we can fit in.”

But when NASA suffers, so does Friendswood. When hardships hit the agency, the effects can be felt hard in the city.

That was most recently exemplified in January, when the space center was mostly closed during the government shutdown prompted by Congress and President Donald Trump disagreeing over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ninety-five percent of NASA’s employees didn’t go to work during the shutdown, nor did an untold number of contractors, who could not be paid during the shutdown.

But January’s troubles were not the first time that Friends-wood residents took a hit because of challenges outside of their control.

There was the other, shorter government shutdown in early 2018, and the government sequestration in 2013.

But the biggest hit came in 2011, with the official shuttering of the space shuttle program. Thousands of NASA contractors and employees were laid off because of the end of the program, and people were left uncertain about what the direction of the space agency would be.

Nearly a decade after the mass layoffs, Foreman said that he’s confident that the hits have mostly stopped coming.

“I think NASA is in a great place right now,” he said. “The future is bright for the space industry.”

Part of that has to do with the shift NASA has made to help spur private spaceflight by partnering with private companies to move material to the International Space Station and beyond. Many of the people who were laid off from the shuttle program found work with contractors working on the new initiatives.

There is certainly plenty of work to do.

There are more than 50 aerospace contracting firms that work in the Johnson Space Center area, according to the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. Between federal employees and contractors, the space center employs more than 10,000 people.

As time has passed since the shuttle era, NASA’s initiatives have started to enter a new phase, and NASA seems poised to enter an era when private companies send not only supplies to space, but people, too.

In August 2018, NASA and SpaceX, the private company owned by Tesla and PayPal founder Elon Musk, introduced the world to the nine astronauts who will be part of the first commercial crew to space.

Among them was Friendswood resident Mike Hopkins, a veteran astronaut who has already traveled to the space station aboard the Russian Soyuz craft.

In early March, the commercial crew program took its next big step, as a SpaceX capsule — sans human passengers — successfully launched from Florida and docked with the space station.

There is a hope that the American crew could be launched into orbit on a private rocket by the end of 2019 or in 2020, although no launch date has been announced.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the successful demonstration marked a new chapter in American excellence.

“This first launch of a space system designed for humans, and built and operated by a commercial company through a public-private partnership, is a revolutionary step on our path to get humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond,” he said.

If history is any indication, it’s entirely possible when humans do reach those distant destinations, that a Friendswood resident is among them. 

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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