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Duck Pin, We Have a Problem

Despite what tour guides say, the Johnson Space Center was never slated for Cambridge.

Banking his Boston duck tour boat in a gradual U-turn on the Charles River, the gray-goateed helmsman and tour guide known as Duck Pin guided the vehicle through the glassy water toward the Longfellow Bridge, his bowling shirt flapping gently in the breeze. “And there, behind those buildings about three blocks down on Broadway,” said Duck Pin, “was the site where NASA wanted to build its Mission Control Center, right next to MIT in the Kendall Square area.”

Several passengers nodded as they gazed up the Charles River embankment.

“If it wasn’t for Kennedy’s assassination, we would have been saying ‘Cambridge, we have a problem’ instead of ‘Houston,’” Duck Pin said. When the president died, “NASA decided to move Mission Control to Houston—conveniently in Texas, the home state of our new president, Lyndon B. Johnson.”

This story is part of the September/October 2012 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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More heads nodded. Maybe they’d heard it before—the legend of the NASA Mission Control Center in Cambridge has been circulated in print and passes freely among professors and students in the hallways of MIT. It’s the story of a grand vision that never was—aborted, like so many other plans, hopes, and dreams, at the death of the young president from Massachusetts.

Problem is, the story’s wrong.

As it turns out, Kennedy’s death wasn’t really a factor in NASA’s Cambridge history. In 1961, Massachusetts politicians tried but failed to win a Cambridge site for the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), an engineering, training, and operations complex to complement launch operations facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Despite pressure from Massachusetts governor John Volpe and Senator Benjamin Smith, NASA instead selected Houston. According to NASA’s James Webb, Kennedy had “intervened in no way to try to favor his own state of Massachusetts, or to rule it out of the game.” The MSC opened on March 1, 1962, nearly 21 months before Kennedy’s assassination.

On July 20, 1962, NASA announced the decision to locate its Mission Control Center at the MSC in Houston. That September, Kennedy gave his famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech before a crowd of 35,000 at Rice University in Houston. Construction on the new mission control facility began in late 1962, roughly a year before the president was killed on November 22, 1963.

The story of NASA’s history with Kendall Square may have come from confusion over a separate effort to develop a research and development center near MIT. As agency decisions were shaping Houston into the Space City, Massachusetts lawmakers were lobbying to bring to Cambridge a NASA field center meant to address the agency’s need for internal expertise in high-quality electronics.

In spite of local opposition (the project would force the removal of 94 local businesses), Kendall Square got the field center. NASA officially opened the Electronics Research Center in a new building at 55 Broadway on September 1, 1964. With the loss of the MSC (renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973), the Electronics Research Center was Cambridge’s consolation prize.

But NASA’s stay in Cambridge proved short-lived when Congress and the Johnson and Nixon administrations cut NASA’s funding even before the first successful moon landing in 1969. Envisioned as the lead NASA center in electronics, the ERC had 950 employees at its peak in 1968 and was involved in hundreds of long-range research projects in such areas as microwave and laser communications, radiation resistance, and holographic information display. But on June 30, 1970, NASA moved out, and the next day the Department of Transportation moved in. NASA electronics projects were cancelled or absorbed by other NASA centers; many staffers transferred to the DOT.

So although it makes a good story to say that Tom Hanks (playing astronaut Jim Lovell) might have declared “Cambridge, we have a problem” during the movie Apollo 13, it seems Duck Pin was wrong about his NASA trivia. Today, the DOT’s Volpe Center at 55 Broadway stands as a reminder of Cambridge’s legacy with the space program, and of Kendall Square’s brief role in humanity’s first steps into the cosmos.

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