Barbara Lovell looked out over the empty field, sweltering in the Texas heat. History would be made here eventually. But on that spring day in 1963, all she could see were cows.
Then 9 years old, she'd just left behind a best friend -- again -- as her family made move number three, this time from Virginia Beach to the middle of nowhere near Houston. The main road wasn't even paved; it was made of oyster shells.
Her father, Jim, pointed at the field and told her that's where his new office was going to be.
The barren landscape in the Clear Lake area roughly 25 miles
outside Houston was the new home of America's space program.
NASA would eventually transform that empty field by Galveston Bay near the Gulf of Mexico into a 1,600-acre campus focused on a singular goal: land a man on the moon and "return him safely to Earth," as President John F. Kennedy promised
, before the decade was out.
Jim Lovell was part of NASA's second-ever astronaut class, nicknamed the "New Nine
," selected in September 1962. When his family moved to the developing neighborhood called Timber Cove, and built a house on Lazywood Lane along a scenic canal, some families of the Mercury astronauts -- those in NASA's first
manned space program -- were already in town. The family of John Glenn -- who had just become the first American to orbit Earth -- was among them.
The Lovells' home was two stories, with the bedrooms on the second floor and a shared bathroom for the four kids. The house featured a big family room and a living room that was off-limits save for special occasions, like photo shoots for a cover of LIFE magazine.
Featuring a canopy bed that she adored, Barbara's room was right next to the telephone at the end of the hallway. She'd spend hours talking to her friends on the phone, which perplexed her mother. "She could never figure out why I could talk to someone I have seen all day in school all night," Barbara, now 67, said. "We had a great life living there on the canal with friends. We never felt unsafe, ever."
As the years went by, the neighborhoods in the Clear Lake area that grew and spread out across the street from the Manned Spacecraft Center (renamed Johnson Space Center in 1973) formed personalities of their own.
The subdivisions were each unique in many ways and alike in a big one: All of them included NASA families.
Three main neighborhoods would emerge: Timber Cove, home to the Lovells and a community pool shaped like a Mercury capsule
; El Lago, where Neil Armstrong lived with his wife, Janet, and sons Rick and Mark, who used their yard and driveway as a wiffle ball field; and Nassau Bay, where Buzz Aldrin lived with his wife and three kids, Mike, Janice and Andy.
Kirk Griffin was 5 years old in 1964 when his father, Gerry, joined NASA's flight controller ranks and moved their family of four, including Kirk's mother Sandy and his baby sister Gwen, to the Nassau Bay subdivision. The field that would become the place where astronauts went to work was still covered in cranes and concrete trucks. While their offices were under construction, Kirk's dad and his colleagues would commute into Houston, where NASA had leased temporary office buildings anywhere they could find -- including a Canada Dry bottling factory.
In those early days, the closest grocery store was in League City, the next town over, and there was only one gas station -- a Texaco right outside the Manned Spacecraft Center's front gate, Kirk, now 62, said.
But then more astronauts came, and houses sprang from the ground, and some of the dads started going to space. The rural area became a tourist destination. Tour buses would come through pointing out the astronauts' homes. The locals weren't quite sure what to make of it, said Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, NASA historian at Johnson Space Center. And soon it was hard to find someone in the Clear Lake area who actually was local.
In true childhood fashion, proximity, age and gender dictated most friendships among the NASA kids. Free from the modern trappings of cell phones or television on demand, the kids rode bikes day and night, swam in pools and lakes, climbed trees, dug holes and made forts.
They played with dolls and went to school and listened to the Jackson 5 and developed crushes on one another.
Their moms mostly stayed home while their dads worked and went on business trips. Sometimes, those business trips were to Florida or Washington, DC. Sometimes they were to the moon.
If it wasn't your dad it was someone else's, and it was just normal. If a mission happened during the school year, you'd bring a note to your teacher and ask to be excused so you could go to Florida for the launch. The squawk boxes -- small, NASA-issued audio devices that allowed families to listen to the live feed between astronauts and Mission Control -- crackled from the mantle of the living room and the press flooded your front lawn during missions. And when you're too young to know life any other way, there's nothing strange about it.