One of the great what-ifs in the history of metropolitan Boston is: What if NASA had moved to Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., instead of Houston?
For one thing, Kendall Square wouldn’t have looked like Desolation Row for three decades. NASA might have built its hundred-odd buildings next to MIT, with all the pizza parlors, dry cleaners and drug stores that went with them.
For another thing, people would use a different catchphrase: “Cambridge, we have a problem.”
It was supposed to happen. President John F. Kennedy wanted it to happen. Duck boat tour guides say it would have happened except for Lee Harvey Oswald. Cambridge had already begun leveling buildings in Kendall Square to make room for NASA headquarters.
But, goes the story, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy put a stop to all plans to locate the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to Kendall Square.
The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, decided Houston in his home state of Texas would be a better spot for NASA.
At least that’s the story.
Kendall Square sure needed the help. It lies at the center of Broadway and Main streets in Cambridge, Mass., next to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the 19th century, factories filled the square, churning out liquor, soap and stockings.
Then came the decline. By the time Kennedy won election to the presidency, Kendall Square had deteriorated into old warehouses, abandoned factories and desolate spaces.
Kennedy saw an opportunity to help his home state. The space race with the Soviets was on, and NASA, created just a few years earlier, needed headquarters for its manned space program. What better place than MIT’s neighborhood?
Plus, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority had begun condemning old buildings and tearing them down in the full flush of urban renewal.
What Really Happened
Kennedy’s assassination took place on Nov. 22, 1963, more than a year after the Manned Spacecraft Center opened in Houston. So no, his death didn’t cause NASA to build its headquarters for manned space flight in Houston.
But there is a grain of truth to the story. Just a grain.
Lyndon Johnson had been on the space case since Oct. 4, 1957. On that day, the Soviet Union set off the Space Race by launching Sputnik, the first manmade satellite.
News of Sputnik shocked and horrified Americans. They had thought the Soviet Union a backward country. Then, suddenly, Sputnik demonstrated the military and technological superiority of a Cold War enemy.
Johnson compared the Sputnik crisis to Pearl Harbor. The day after Sputnik’s launch, he began organizing hearings as chairman of a Senate subcommittee. Weeks later the hearings began, looking into delays in the U.S. satellite and missile programs.
Congress entered the Space Race with vigor. It created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which invented the Internet. It also created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, known as NASA. And it boosted funding for science and technical education in the schools.
Two years later, John F. Kennedy campaigned for president of the United States. He claimed the U.S. faced a ‘missile gap’ with the Soviet Union and vowed to catch up.
After Kennedy won election, he asked his vice president what he wanted to do. Lyndon Johnson answered he wanted to stay involved in space. So Kennedy named him chairman of the Space Council.
It all happened so fast, no wonder people got confused.
In August of that year a committee took shape to select a site for NASA headquarters. The committee visited 23 cities.
President Kennedy, Massachusetts Gov. John Volpe and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy pressured the team to visit Kendall Square in Cambridge, as well. So the team added Kendall Square to the list, but didn’t visit.
In less than two months, the site selection committee announced Houston as its choice in an extraordinarily fast turnaround. Rice University would donate the land.
Kendall Square never really had a chance because Congress had to approve funding for NASA’s manned space flight headquarters. And Houston had powerful friends in Congress. Sam Rayburn of Texas served as Speaker of the House. Perhaps more importantly, Rep. Albert Thomas represented Houston, and steered government projects there as head of the powerful Appropriations Committee subcommittee on defense.
The Manned Spacecraft Center opened on March 1, 1962, well before Kennedy’s assassination. Construction on the new mission control facility began later that year.
On July 4, 1962, seven Mercury astronauts moved to Houston and the U.S. human space program began.
On Sept. 12, 1962, Kennedy delivered a speech to a huge crowd at Rice Stadium. “We choose to go to the moon,” he famously said. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” (Watch the speech here.)
It’s also hard to imagine that Lyndon Johnson didn’t have a hand in the decision.
In the summer of 1964, the City of Cambridge looked for a consolation prize. It lobbied NASA to build its Electronics Research Center in Kendall Square.
NASA chose Kendall Square from 160 possible locations. The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority agreed to sell 14 acres of the run-down neighborhood to the federal government. Work started on six new buildings, which would house developments on systems for communications, information display and automated spacecraft landings.
Then in December 1969 NASA changed its mind and jilted Cambridge.
“We were in a state of shock around here,” said Robert S. Remer, Cambridge Redevelopment Authority deputy executive director, in Mass High Tech. “We felt the city had been seduced and then abandoned by the federal government.”
John Volpe, former Massachusetts governor, then served as Secretary of Transportation under President Richard Nixon. He managed to get the Department of Transportation to move its research center to the abandoned NASA buildings in Kendall Square. There, DOT works on air traffic control systems, automobile emissions standards and automobile safety.
But the Volpe Center epitomized bad 70s design: an isolated concrete building sitting in an unoccupied post-industrial wasteland.
Things got better in 1982 when Biogen moved to Kendall Square. The founder, Phillip Sharp, wanted a headquarters closer to his lab at MIT. Other companies moved in, and in 2017 MIT won a contract to redevelop the Volpe Center.
Still, it would have been nice if NASA had moved to Kendall Square. If Mission Control was in Cambridge, there might not have been a problem in the first place.
This story was updated in 2022.