T. Keith Glennan considered his options.
The year was 1959, and a powerful Houston congressman had just offered NASA's first leader 1,000 acres of prime Texas real estate to construct a new space center.
On the one hand, Albert Thomas controlled space spending in the U.S. House. On the other hand, Houston was much farther from NASA's headquarters than the existing Goddard Space Flight Center in nearby Maryland. It was just a year after NASA's creation, and Glennan wanted Congress to fund improvements to Goddard, allowing the space program to grow up just miles from Washington.
Thomas offered a simple choice: Build the Houston center or get nothing for Goddard. Glennan chose Houston.
It was a political lesson well learned.
In the years since, NASA has spread its centers and dollars across the country, primarily to build a broad political support base for its vision of space exploration. By design, hundreds of lawmakers now represent states or districts whose economies are driven at least in part by the space program.
The downside of that arrangement is that it created legions of parochial lawmakers with economic-preservation interests.
Some of those lawmakers have forced the agency to spend hundreds of millions of dollars maintaining unwanted technologies in order to preserve jobs back home. And NASA has backed off efforts to modernize and streamline after lawmakers complained that local workers or businesses would be affected.
"NASA is truly a creature of Congress," said Howard McCurdy, co-editor of Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership, which describes the exchange between Glennan and Thomas, who are no longer living.
Hometown porkTexas aerospace workers are still benefiting from the legacy of Thomas and another powerful Lone Star state booster for whom NASA's largest facility is named -- senator turned President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Today, Houston's Johnson Space Center houses Mission Control and the astronaut corps.
Besides Texas and its headquarters in Washington, D.C., NASA's nine other major centers are spread across seven other states -- Florida, California, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi. But the agency's reach does not stop there. In fiscal year 2001, NASA doled out $11.2 billion in contracts to companies in 48 states and the District of Columbia.
An Orlando Sentinel analysis of federal-contract data shows that although more than half of those funds went to the four states with NASA's most-important centers -- in order, Texas, California, Maryland and Florida -- even states without major centers did very well.
For 2001, that included Utah, home to the Thiokol Propulsion division of Alliant Techsystems Inc. that makes motors for the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, and Louisiana. The Michoud Assembly Facility in east New Orleans builds the massive external fuel tanks for the space shuttle.
The widespread funding gives NASA a broad coalition with an urge for preservation of the space program, something NASA lobbyists have worked to the agency's advantage.
For example, in 1993, lobbyists heavily touted the local economic benefits of the international space station to help stave off a move in Congress to kill the orbiting science lab. The station survived by one vote.
Of the 155 members of Congress from the eight states with NASA's largest centers -- Texas, Florida, California, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi -- only 37 voted against it. In Florida and Texas, the two with the highest space profile, only three of 53 lawmakers voted to end funding for the space station.
"It was hard to find anyone who wasn't receiving some kind of NASA funding in their district," said former Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., who led a charge to abandon the station because of continual cost overruns. Roemer said lawmakers from big NASA states would tell him, " 'Tim I can't vote for you; I've got too many jobs in my district.' Then they'd whisper, 'But if you had a secret ballot on this, you'd probably win.' "
A decade after that historic vote, as the agency faces tighter and tighter budgets, NASA continues to tout local economic benefits in lobbying congressional lawmakers. But the increasing reliance on those arguments has sometimes limited NASA's ability to act independently. For example: