Planetary Radio • Jul 05, 2024

Space Policy Edition: NASA and the American South

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Brian odom

Brian Odom

Chief historian for NASA

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

Every major NASA center built after the agency’s inception is located in the American South. Why? Dr. Brian Odom, NASA’s chief historian, joins the show to explore the relationship between NASA and the South, how politics and geography led to this focus, and why NASA’s expansion during the Apollo era was likened to a second reconstruction of a previously rural and underdeveloped region of the United States.

Mule and Rocket Test Stand, 1967
Mule and Rocket Test Stand, 1967 In this photograph, a "one horsepower" mule and plow works to dig a trench in front of a test stand with a Saturn S-IC stage in place for a future firing at the Mississippi Test Facility, now known as NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center (SSC). The S-IC stage produced the equivalent of 160 million horsepower when running at full strength.Not surprisingly, testing large rocket engines tends to draw noise complaints, so the location of the facility proved ideal due to its isolation as well as its proximity to other NASA facilities along the Gulf Coast. The nature of the soil in the area, though, meant that using bulldozers to dig the shallow pipe trenches to support the test stands would cause more problems than the machinery would solve. The mule and plow provided a simple and proven solution.Image: NASA


Casey Dreier: Hello, and welcome to the Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio, the monthly show where we explore the politics and the processes behind space exploration. I'm Casey Dreier, the Chief of Space Policy here at The Planetary Society. When Alan Shepard and John Glenn undertook NASA's earliest crewed flights in the early 1960s, space flight was generally a mid-Atlantic endeavor in the United States. Although Shepard and Glenn launched from Cape Canaveral down in Florida, their training had taken place at facilities spread across Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Mission control at the time of the earliest Mercury flights was in Maryland. But in the wake of Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and the vast expansion of NASA's budget that followed, nearly every state in the union vied to become home to the agency's core facilities to ensure the success of Apollo. But due to a mix of political clout and geographic opportunity, all of these subsequent facilities were established in the American South. This intro is adapted from a foreword in the fascinating new collection, NASA and the American South, a book co-edited by NASA's chief historian Brian Odom. He joins us today to discuss this relationship that NASA has with the South, how the South has influenced NASA as an organization, and really the broad historical and political context for this massive government investment that has led some to call NASA's presence there a second reconstruction at the time of Apollo. Before we get to that, I want to mention that The Planetary Society, my organization, is an independent member-supported nonprofit. This show and all the other work that we do happens because of those who become members and donate to our efforts. If you're not a member, please consider joining us at Memberships start at just $4 a month and anyone can become a member. If you are already a member, thank you. Honestly, thank you for making this all happen, and you can consider increasing your membership level if you'd like to support even more of the great work that we do. That's all at Here now is NASA's chief historian, Brian Odom, to talk about NASA and the American South. Dr. Brian Odom, welcome to the Space Policy Edition. Thank you for being here today.

Brian Odom: Hey, thank you, Casey. Glad to be here.

Casey Dreier: I have just read through your new collection that you edited with a number of great contributors called NASA and the American South. This is a topic that I confess I've been fascinated with for a long time. I've done a number of trips and actually have done a road trip with a number of my colleagues here at The Planetary Society through all the Southern NASA centers a few years ago to look at the SLS and its human spaceflight implications. Before we kind of go into the broader sense of the book, particularly for our listeners outside the United States, how do you define the American South? What makes it distinct to you? And I would say as a Southerner, right?

Brian Odom: It's funny that we still have these conversations quite all the time. I mean, do we consider Virginia to be Southern? Some people might consider Virginia to be the most southern state. Some people would consider that to be kind of deep south, so you've got the Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana area there. In my mind, I think that Southern is kind of geographic obviously that makes sense, but it is this kind of a cultural location where there are these places that are quintessentially southern. A lot of people today consider southern as this dichotomy between rural and urban. I mean, if you look at across the south today, the larger cities that we come to associate with the south, they're taking on more of a cosmopolitan feel. And I think Huntsville in Alabama reflects that. Do we consider Huntsville to be a very essentially southern city? Well, geographically obviously, but it's a lot more cosmopolitan, its makeup for a lot of the reasons that this book really gets it, this domestic immigration from all parts of the country, parts of the world, and this has a profound impact on these societies.

Casey Dreier: It's partly cultural too, because I think, again, just for our international members, Southern California isn't the South, even though it would be at the same latitude as parts of Alabama or Mississippi. And Texas maybe, I think has its own distinct culture, but it strikes me as a very cultural aspect in addition to this inherited, as you say, immigrant and cultures that established in the modern kind of US, setting those distinct areas beyond it. But it definitely seems to represent a certain type of, at least self-identified culture distinct within the United States. Is that a fair characterization?

Brian Odom: I think it is, definitely. I think without a doubt, and like I said, it depends on who you ask. A lot of people say cultural, I think is one of the key pieces of that. There are these things that are associated with southern culture. When you're riding down the interstate from Virginia to coming south there, you begin to see the waffle houses emerge. You begin to see grits rapidly replace oatmeal.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, the waffle house line is real, for sure.

Brian Odom: Without question.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. I mean, I asked this because why is this, what made you want to approach and release a collection of essays about this? Why is it important to you that we evaluate and look at NASA through this regional lens of this amorphous idea of this cultural south in the United States?

Brian Odom: Yeah, I think that's an important point. One of the things we tend to think of these institutions, agencies like NASA, we think of them as very unified. We've got this idea in our head of what NASA is, and no matter where that logo, that insignia falls across the country, we expect to see a similar engineering, similar focus on science. And to some degree you do, then that's because of this immigration of different folks from around the country. But I think these regionally, we consider technology to be embedded in local societies as well. There is regional variation to some degree, southern opinions about technology and about scientific progress. That's another story. We could go down to politically how that might be. But I think for me, it was important to look at this to break down that homogeneous, that idea that all NASA is the same no matter where it is. It just comes in, it maintains its isolation from the communities it exists in, it performs its work, and it goes about its business in a similar way, wherever you find it. I think what we demonstrate in this book is that that doesn't happen. Regional variation within NASA, we talked about this idea that the south leaves an accent upon NASA. In this southern accent of engineering, engineers that are associated with Marshall Space Flight Center might have a unique variation between engineers in Southern California, as you say, or in New England or in Glenn Research Center. And so I think that was important to look at from a methodological standpoint. That was part of our primary focus. The other part of that is the differences between the societies themselves. Obviously in the 1950s and '60s, we wouldn't consider the south and the north to be very similar in, they were dissimilar in a lot of different ways. We've got Jim Crow segregation in the South, so the political leadership of the South has varying interests from the political leadership in the north or the west or the southwest. Jim Crow played a key role in that. But what I wanted to look at was, okay, so let's say when NASA moves south, as we might say, what does that interaction look like? How does the political leadership in Alabama perceive the benefits of this space and what did they see as being at risk? Well, in the late 1950s, early-1960s, that was where the battleground was. It was a racial line, the preservation of Jim Crow segregation, but also the acceptance as they had for a long time of federal largesse. We can talk about the impact of the New Deal, World War II, the DOD kind of infrastructure that was built across the South, and NASA kind of falls along on those same lines. What was that impact and what did that political leadership, how did they see this? I think that was, to me, that's why this is regionally important. And then kind of lastly, if we accept, and I think a lot of historians who look at issues like this do accept this as an idea that there's regional variation in this. Okay, how can we then apply this internationally? How can we look at say, regional variation in aerospace technology in Latin America, places like what we refer to as global south, India, China, Southeast Asia? How do they see those? And so that might help us. And as a historian, we're always saying, what is the application to today? I think more studies like this can help us understand where we are today and where we're dissimilar and where we're similar.

Casey Dreier: And what I really enjoyed about this collection is that you have beyond the broader political and sociological consequences. You look at the cultural changes that happened in some of these places because of investment of these new NASA centers, new being mid-twentieth century at this point. But let's start with this growth and establishment of NASA in the US South, because I think what's so interesting to me is whether it was in a sense a predestination, it was guaranteed to be there because of geography or if it was a unique happenstance of the politics of the United States at the time. So NASA in 1958 when it's founded is kind of cobbled together from existing NACA flight centers around the country. And those are in California, Ohio, Virginia, but nothing distinctly in the South. And I think you kind of touched on this. Maybe let's step back one step and say what was the South like during the Great Depression, industrial, from an industrial perspective, and how does this play into this larger intent to establish or potential for building up new aerospace centers in this geographical area?

Brian Odom: You could go back a long way. You could go back to the idea of, in the aftermath of the Civil War. So there's this major transformation of the economic foundations of the South with the emancipation of slaves following Civil War and the reconstruction process there. The planner elite historians for a long time kind of disagreed amongst themselves about what actually was taking place in the aftermath of the Civil War, whether or not the planner elites were maintaining that grip on society, on the culture, on the economy, or whether or not there was the emergence of a new class, kind of a new stronger middle class, the doctors, lawyers, and the merchants, and how they were beginning to take political power. There was that struggle of power, but I think if you flash forward to, and there's a lot more to it than that, but if you flash forward to this Great Depression and the process of the New Deal that emerges there, I think we see that as the first time where FDR identified the South as being the nation's number one economic problem, that there's a liability here in the country. The country can't be united because the economy's not united. And the new deal was this attempt from FDR and the government to bring the South into the union, you might say economically, change it from this... Transform it really from this traditional foundations of agricultural, rural, non-industrialized area of the country to bring it more aligned, to introduce technology, to build hydroelectric plants, the electrification, build roads, build these things. Flash forward to World War II, so this edifice had been... Infrastructure had been laid down by the New Deal investment from the federal government. World War II continued that process because you had that seed of the New Deal infrastructure, you could now lay it another wave of federal improvement on the South. That's what happens here. And so in the aftermath of World War II, after that investment, you're left with these large DOD, these large bases in the south, and that was an important part of what's going to come next. You're right when by the time you get to 1958, NASA's created, you see most of your institutions, the NACA, as you mentioned that pre-existed, they were in Langley, Virginia, Cleveland, out in California. The aeronautics industry out in Southern California was massive, and it would continue to be and people always forget that a lot of the backbone of the space program was built in Southern California, and that would remain. But what of the south? You've got this DOD infrastructure, you've got this even back to the New Deal, everything that was built up there, and you've got this attempt again in the late 1950s to really unify the nation behind this effort and to say, "Okay, now we've got another wave here coming," and that would be from, by the time you get to John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, they really are behind this idea that it's kind of a second New Deal. This is an idea to unify the country and the process of unification would be this incredible investment that would come from the federal government there. Then we begin to see in 1958 forward, we begin to see, obviously Florida makes sense for a good reason. You want to have that launch capability there. You've got the Atlantic Ocean, there's a safety mechanism, there's the equatorial advantage you get by launching toward the further south you go. All of that kind of makes sense. But everything beyond that begins where politics really comes into play. You've got these congress people and senators from all of these different places in Alabama, John Sparkman. He's incredibly important about bringing that investment here. Albert Thomas, responsible for getting the space task group moved from Virginia to Houston, what will become the Johnson Space Center. So that all kind of makes sense, but a lot of people didn't think that made a whole lot of sense to them. Why wouldn't you just build everything in Florida? Well, there's a reason for that. There's a lot more to it than that. But it is important to see this in waves. We do have to go back. We have to contextualize. It's not that in 1958 someone had a bright idea to put all this infrastructure in the South. There are these predecessor movements, predecessor investments that happen, and it kind of just lays the groundwork going forward.

Casey Dreier: That's what, again, I find so fascinating about this and this interesting mix of, it sounds like kind of this mix of geographical determinism of Florida in particular, but also the infrastructure that was then built from World War II and the Great Depression. You mentioned electrification. My father-in-law lives right on a Tennessee Valley Authority Lake still. And it's still a big part of their lives to this day. And you had maybe this, and again, you can just jump in and correct me as the actual historian here, but it seems like under industrialization of this large region of the United States and this kind of intent from the federal government to build this region up with the potential. But also I wonder how much of it is because it had been under industrialized that you have just the space to build big new things that you don't have to bump up against pre-existing issues, potentially with land ownership, or if you need to launch or fire off big loud rockets. The consequences for acquiring that land is less than a more denser, highly industrialized area of the country. I wonder if that plays into this as well, that it had this opportunity for growth.

Brian Odom: That's true. Part of that is true. You've got some environmental advantages. You've got the Tennessee Waterway that connects you to the Mississippi Waterway, that gets you to the Gulf of Mexico, which gets you there. There are these natural advantages. There's not a lot of population, there's not a lot of urbanization urban centers here. The idea that you do have small towns that can be either moved, that's a big part of this story as well. In the 1950s, early 1940s, you do see a lot of this. The government begins to come in and say, "Hey, this is for the betterment of the country, that we're fighting a war. We need you to step up and we're going to basically move you off this facility so we can build an institution here." Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville basically began that way. There were some small farms there, small towns especially African American communities there, and they came in and said, for the betterment of progress, we've got to move you off of this site. Well, that's interesting. In South Mississippi, we'll see the same thing for Stennis Space Center. There were five towns there that the Senator Stennis told them it was the thorn before the rose. You're going to go through this pain now, but we've got to beat the communists. It's this idea of you coming in. But the other thing about this was that the government does have this power to move folks off of these sites, but you see who is being moved. African American families, disadvantaged families, some poor whites and blacks who were moved off these sites. Huntsville is, go back to Huntsville for just a bit in 1950, as the Korean War Was breaking out, Sparkman was able to bring in a group to Huntsville that had been out in New Mexico, the Von Braun team and the rocket folks, the Germans out there. They were kind of, as we say, languishing in the desert. And then they're brought in here for the war effort, and that begins to be that process. There's a lot more to it and that is the other part of this story is a labor issue. If we're going to build industrialized, it's also useful to think about in terms of in the 1940s and '50s and '60s, the South was very anti-union for a long time. Still to this day, it may be. This right to work, anti-union, you might have cheaper labor. It may not be as... The education system wasn't as built up here, so you could find semi-skilled labor that would be relatively cheap. The cheap availability of semi-skilled labor was quite kind of a draw as well. And the idea that that would not be unionized was also a draw. All of these factors do come into play.

Casey Dreier: I just want to highlight, there's a number of chapters or articles or pieces in this book collection that touches on the communities that were displaced in Merritt Island, as you said, around Stennis. And I thought that was just a really fascinating piece of context that I hadn't thought about. I mean, NASA greatly expanded in those areas and someone had to move. And they're buying the land, but they're still kind of being pushed out. And interesting point that it tends to be people who don't have a lot of political power, which maybe fits in a larger historical trends, but there's consequences to that growth. The other thing that was really interesting to me, particularly coming out of Andrew Dunbar's essay, and I want to get to some of the things you touched on later as well because I think you had a really great essay about the labor and workforce challenges, particularly for Black Americans and other minorities coming into the South. But first, before we get there, this idea of the politics that then also played into this that you mentioned earlier, that at this point in time, politically speaking, it's the Southern Democrats are kind of in the position that this Republican Party is in the South today, which it's very deeply entrenched. Once you're elected through a primary, you're pretty much guaranteed to win. You have a very strong politically powerful base there. And because of that, this interesting institutional consequences that these Southern Democrats rise to the top of seniority which makes them choice positions, particularly in the Senate for committee assignments that control where funding goes, that controls the policies for NASA and they can throw their weight around. And so you highlighted a couple of people from Alabama and Texas and also then Lyndon Johnson, of course from Texas, who starts as a senator and becomes vice president. But there's a lot of intention wrapping up in this broader activist government ideal at this time that I want to loop this back into. You have these highly represented areas and positions of power in Congress with this attitude that the federal government should or could actively invest in these areas to improve the economies, the industrial base, the workforce, and then suddenly here comes this huge Cold War Apollo program that touches on this national issue but then feeds right into this attitude to begin with. And suddenly, "Oh, it makes a lot of sense. Why should we put Johnson in Texas and then expand out in Florida and build out these places in Mississippi for rocket testing?" And it's just interesting to me that it's because of this political accident almost that you have this power base that is also supporting that. Maybe the question is for you, how much of that is intentional? Because I kind of got both perspectives from that in the book, whether James Webb, who was running NASA at the time saying, "No, we selected these spaces, it makes sense to us to this is the place we need that fits all these criteria." But then you have members of Congress saying like, "Oh, absolutely. We'll do this because it'll be in my district or in my state." How much of that was intentional ultimately?

Brian Odom: Quite a bit. Yeah, I would argue quite a bit. The seniority system that you identified there with the Southern senators, there have been this huge Dixiecrat revolt that had occurred earlier where because of a lot of things in terms of race and lots of other issues, that basically the Democrats in the South had revolted. But they were very solidified among themselves. They all agreed that this was the system. They kept their seats. There wasn't a lot of opposition to them internally. They understood that if they could keep these seats, they could keep the money coming, but maybe and also control the liabilities that that funding might bring with it. There is this dichotomy of a distrust of a distant federal government or a dislike of what the power of federal government might have if you accept and build a system like this. But if they could control these committees, they could then control what they would've considered to be the negative effects. I think we see by the time you get to Brown versus Board of Education in 1954, I think you see that play out again. This idea that the solid south federal funding might create the liabilities that they may be unable to control as they had been before. But yeah, I think once you get to the NASA years, 1958 to 1961, where a lot of these activities actually happening, these people are critical. John Sparkman in Alabama was critical to that, to making sure that that investment came to Huntsville. First off in 1950, moving it from New Mexico to Alabama, keeping it in the aftermath of the end of the conflict in North Korea and Korea, and then maintaining it and then building it up from 1960 when Marshall Space Flight Center is kind of formed out of that core group from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency there. Sparkman is kind of behind the scenes orchestrating that, and he's able to do that because of the power that he has. We see the same thing in Southern Mississippi there. John Stennis, who has been a senator there for a long time and would remain a senator there for a very long time. He was important about, "Okay, we want to bring some of that largesse here. We want to be able to control it. We've got a spot in South Mississippi that's perfect to test large rockets, whereas Huntsville was beginning to increase in population. So maybe if we test the Saturn V here too many times, or God forbid, we test a Nova rocket, which would basically shatter everybody's with 12-square mile radius there. In South Mississippi, you've got this area." Stennis is able to come in, he's able to secure that investment, he's able to move those populations, convince them to go, and then maintain it over these years. And that's the thing too, just getting it as one thing, but being able to maintain it in the aftermath of Apollo, that's when it really got critical, moving quite a little bit beyond our area of focus here. But yeah, that's really critical. And what was happening in Texas, Lyndon Johnson, the outsized role that Lyndon Johnson had in an overall creation of the space program and putting his kind of stamp on every aspect of it, it makes sense that Houston, Texas is going to have a huge role in this because literally we understand why Cape Canaveral is there for physics. We understand that, but everything passed that, the space task group moving from Virginia to Houston. George Smathers was a senator from Florida who was very close with John F. Kennedy, he was able to orchestrate all of these things for him, but he wasn't able to convince Kennedy to just move the space task group to Florida right beside what would become Kennedy Space Center, because you kind of see that the reason is to spread this thing out across the region. We can't advantage one group over another, one state over another. We might create conflict. We've got to have enough here to spread out. There's a big piece of it.

Casey Dreier: I just find it really, it is part of this parochial politicking, but again, what strikes me is that it almost requires this baseline of acceptance of it still fitting into this broader national goal. You had an interesting piece in the collection about the Appalachian development. I'm forgetting the exact name of it, but this focused federal effort to improve economics of Appalachia. And that again, is kind of interesting contrast because it requires this acceptance that this is a valuable thing too. It's not just throwing money around. It's not just parochial. I mean, Kennedy understood it. Johnson understood it. Other members of Congress understood it that this was fitting into this broader effort, and it seemed to be seen as an explicit benefit of the space program, is that it is driving investment into these underdeveloped areas.

Brian Odom: That's an interesting point that you bring up, and it kind of is at the foundation of all of this, is the idea of modernization theory, this idea that there is a path that societies take on their way to becoming modern, and that's the Walras style of the world. He was very close to Kennedy and Johnson, and he was very influential to the way they thought about the world. You can inject technological regimes, give incredible amount of funding to these regions to get them kind of kick-started to a tipping point to which they become modern states. There is this idea that this path was almost scientific. Kennedy definitely believed that, he was very into this idea, Johnson without a doubt as well. Eisenhower probably not so much, but this idea that you can say, "Okay, we're going to start you on the path to becoming modern, and it will only improve. All the rising tide lifts all boats, right? We will build a powerhouse." And what began to happen was TVA became the model for that. They could say, "Look at what we did with TVA and people from around the world would come to the region." And they would say, "Oh my god, look at the electrification here that happened. Look at how these states, they're now advancing, how their economies are improving. Maybe we can export this." And ultimately what that leads to in Vietnam is the end of modernization theory for all intents and purposes, is this idea that you can export these things in very distinct packages and it'll have the intended effect of what you're looking for. I think the creation of NASA kind of falls in that vogue of when modernization theory was kind of dominant. It's a story in and of itself, and it's very well encapsulated by the Apollo program. Apollo is modernization theory.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, I mean it's like the essence. It's the myth making aspect of it that it worked, but it has yet to functionally be replicated as that. Speaking of, again, this point in time, is Johnson, am I correct? Is that the last or the manned spacecraft center at the time, is that the last NASA center? Is that the newest NASA center functionally in the country? There's the independent verification facility, which is also in the south. It's in West Virginia, also relating to a very powerful Southern Democrat at the time. But I guess that's kind of a NASA center, but it's not really a full center, right? I think it's managed by Goddard. Is Apollo basically the era of NASA expansion of facilities and then that's pretty much it?

Brian Odom: Yeah, that's it. And this is kind of all the pieces are in place, the chess board set, and this is what we'll have. And really from that point forward, and it is in 1961 really where a lot of this effort is underway. You've got the Michoud Assembly Facility, which basically is run by Marshall Space Flight Center, Stennis Space Center. Really, it is a Mississippi test facility for a long time that's run by Marshall, and it will become kind of independent later on. But yeah, Johnson is one of these later, especially with the large flight sets.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, it's always fascinating to me that it basically ends there, and then everything since has been reconfigurations of these existing facilities built at this time. I think maybe goes to that point you were talking about of this modernization theory or this period of political interest of active industrialization and investment, and then that kind of ends, at least in modern American politics, at least at the level that NASA is able to spend. And we have the facilities that we functionally have. I live in the Pacific Northwest, no NASA centers around here, and no NASA centers in the near term that we anticipate. But again, I think it's just easy to forget that the newest center is basically, what, 1965 is when the manned space flight center started. And notably too, I think they all became named after their political benefactors after the fact, right? The Stennis Space Center was named not when it was created, but later I think maybe acknowledging parts of this. We'll be right back with the rest of our Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio after this short break.

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Casey Dreier: I do want to shift a little bit to talking about some of the implications of establishing all this in the South, because this is also where it becomes really interested. And this is a topic that you've written on quite a bit and was the subject of your last collection, which is the... You already mentioned the South at this point is still highly segregated, and the civil rights movement is kind of forming around NASA at the time and really building in national politics at the time. And that creates some interesting tensions because you're in a sense, creating this very futuristic forward-looking brand-new establishment of these NASA facilities, yet they are not hitting their mark in terms of hiring people of color or hiring anywhere near some of the other facilities because of their location in the south. Let's talk about that a little bit, because you have a whole essay about trying to struggle with this both on the... It seems like the ability to hire and the desire that the institutional racism of not hiring Black Americans, but also interesting the challenges of training engineers and scientists for aerospace from these historically black colleges and universities that had gone into very specific lanes about where they saw their graduates going and not being able to provide that initially. You have a dual challenge from the top and the bottom in terms of the input process, it seems like.

Brian Odom: Yeah, and like you said, from my research, that was one of the most interesting things that I came across, you're right, is coming at this from all different angles. We tend to oversimplify processes, so in historical moments and we tend to think of them as monolithic, and there's a narrative that's created. But one of the things, as with anything, the more you look into it, the more complicated it becomes. And so really it is this huge investment, like we've mentioned, these Congressional, this seniority system and how this was brought into play. They wanted this investment because obviously it benefited their local constituents, but they wanted to control who had access to that and what problems that might cause for them. And Jim Crow was the Achilles heel of the whole process. Especially from March of 1961 forward when President Kennedy makes equal employment a key piece of this. There had been desegregation processes going forward in connection to the DOD. So these bases were being desegregated as early as the Truman administration. But what Kennedy really did was he understood that if we can tie creating access to jobs, we're going to create a lot of jobs here, and we're going to make sure that those jobs are, everybody has equal access to those jobs. And in March of that year '61, he puts forth the executive order that makes equal employment opportunity a key hinge of this. What he basically said was, and it's the first time in that order, it's the first time we see the phrase affirmative action show up. And so it's not just that you have to not be discriminatory, you have to have an affirmative program to overcome the challenges that you will face in a place like Alabama for hiring African-Americans who are trained for these jobs. Why are there no African-Americans in Huntsville who are readily trained for these jobs in the aerospace industry? Well, there's a lot of reasons and a lot of history for that, right? Black education being separate as part of Jim Crow, separate but equal was not true. It was very unequal. Access from the funding agent standpoint in Alabama, down in Montgomery, why would it be that in their mind, why would they want to fund high level mathematics for African Americans when they were looking at agricultural jobs? This is what their justification for that was. By the time you get to 1961, there's a process where, okay, there's been inequality in this system forever, for hundreds of years. How do we automatically catch up? And so the justification for not hiring would be, I can't find candidates who are trained for the jobs. Well, what Kennedy did with the EO was he said, "You have to go find them," and that created this huge impact in the local area of saying, "Okay, where are African American students who we can find and invest in?" And one of the places nearby in Huntsville was, and it is not just Huntsville that this happens in, it happens across the south in these communities. Where are the historically Black colleges and universities nearby? Where are the training centers for them? How do we invest in those and keep them separate? But how do we invest in them? How does the federal government come in and do that? Well, it was tricky because this didn't just apply to the federal government, it applied to their contractors as well. When Boeing, IBM moved to Huntsville and create this huge complex of jobs here, this applies to them as well. And if you don't demonstrate that you have an affirmative action program, not only do you lose your contract, but you're prevented from bidding again for that contract in the next round. It would exclude you from the job. And if we know the history of the space program back in Apollo, there were very few companies who could manage to do the work that they were. From NASA's perspective, if Boeing, if IBM or any of these companies are excluded from working on the Apollo program, so there's a mutual interest there. And so what you begin to see is a coordinating committee kind of emerge between the industry, the government, and the local community where they begin to work in unison with each other to figure out ways to get candidates, the African American candidates for these jobs and build training programs at these local institutions out in the community, in the industries themselves. There are federal programs for this. There are also non-governmental things like the Ford Foundation. And all of these groups are also heavily involved in this because they have the resources to come in and invest as well. This goes on for quite a long time, and it's a way to do it. But the other thing that you have to do in the meantime while these programs are being put in place, it takes a long time to get a pool of candidates like that. You have to, and it's not just colleges. It's at the high school level, at the elementary level, all the while, this is all still separate in the South. There's been this massive resistance to Brown versus Board of Education. The governor of Alabama at this time is George Wallace, who basically ran on the idea that segregation now and segregation forever. He's going to block this as much as possible. All of these things are taking place at the same time. In the meantime, you have to go out and find people where they are. So they had NASA, the industry, they would go out and they would've recruiters who would travel the country to places like MIT, to places in Chicago and California and try to convince African Americans in 1963 who had engineering degrees and science degrees, physics degrees to move to Alabama, when every day in 1963, what they saw on TV was fire hoses, police dogs. I can make more money working here. Why would I move there? There is this huge problem, even for the people who are very well-intentioned and actually trying to solve this problem of the lack of what they would refer to as a lack of qualified candidates. And so what you began to see is just a lot of different things that government industry and the African American community did. The other main piece of this though within the community are the activists, the African American activists for Civil Rights for the end of Jim Crow. They understood this problem very well, and they understood this was the Achilles heel of these southern cities, that if we can bring leverage and visibility to what you're doing here, and that's when the sit-in movements begin in these communities, and they become very, very important. People begin to... They sue the school boards for access to education to break down those Jim Crow barriers. It's that leverage that's provided by this process that really allows change to come and that process of desegregation. It's not an accident that the first African American child to attend a previously segregated school in the state of Alabama happened in Huntsville, Alabama in 1963 in September of that year, because on Friday there were four cities around the state. There were African American attempts to enroll students at those schools. And George Wallace put the troopers out, and he denied that. Over the weekend, all of these contractors, the presidents, the VPs of these companies call George Wallace and said, "Do you have any idea what you're doing and what's at risk here?" And the next day, that next week, Monday in Huntsville, Alabama, Sonnie Hereford IV, the young child, attends Fifth Avenue Elementary School for the first time. George Wallace continued to block in other cities, but he didn't in Huntsville. And that begins this process of unfolding a separate vehicle to education. Like you said, there's a lot to it there, and it's fairly deep. But there's a meaningful, there's something that really happens here as part of this process that brings about change in these communities. One of the problems that we have though is this postage story, looking back at these moments and people thinking, "Yeah, it happened in Huntsville because Huntsville was different. Huntsville was a progressive oasis. It was an island of progressive thought in the middle of Alabama." That's not true at all. And that's not to say that it was an evil place or bad, but we look back and we say, "That's why it happened." No, that's not why it happened at all. It was agency of people who were trying to bring about change, who understood the situation well enough to apply leverage to bring about that change.

Casey Dreier: It's a fascinating part of this history, and again, it's just really striking to think about, it's not just as simple as plopping something new in this preexisting culture, in this preexisting place and say, go forward and act like where you are doesn't mean anything. And I think that goes back to this regionalism lens in which to look at some of this history. I just wanted to mention, I mean so much to follow up there and Roger Lanius has essay that opens the book, he highlights some of the challenges of these Black Americans coming down to Marshall, going into a segregated southern state. And I was just like, my breath was taken away. Julius Montgomery, it says here, had to deal with NASA coworkers who were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and refused to acknowledge him or shake his hand. I wouldn't want to move to Marshall either. I mean, it's incredible that they were able to get anybody. But then also that just demonstrates the level of difficulty that you're highlighting here from institutionally, culturally, even with this federal support. And I think there was a couple of times where this extraordinary moment occurred where you had Robert Kennedy who's the attorney general coming and excoriating James Webb and Lyndon Johnson for not pushing this equal employment hard enough within NASA centers and seeing some real consequences from that. But as you point out, it took a lot of agency from a lot of different people to start to this long process of starting to break these chains.

Brian Odom: Without a doubt. In these communities, you have people like L.C. McMillan, who came from Prairie View A&M to head what they call the Association of Huntsville Area Contractors, which was kind of this coordinating committee board that managed this process, an African American who worked here who became integral to this process. Richard Morrison, the president of Alabama A&M University, he had to skirt a fine line because if he looks like he's radical in the eyes of white community, if he looks like somebody who's pushing for revolution basically in the 1960s which meant supporting students to sit in downtown. He's going to come in and he's going to say, "Look, that's not the way to change. I want my students to be more moderate because I've got to continue to have a healthy funding line from Montgomery, Alabama. They're the ones who are going to provide us the funding for these programs that I'm trying to put in place that are preparing you for these jobs." But also in the Black community, he can't be someone who looks like he's supporting white ideas about where African Americans should be. It's the W.E.B. du Bois, Booker T. Washington kind of dichotomy there. He's in a very delicate position in 1963, but he's able to get together the funds that he has, secure the accreditation that he needs to develop these new programs and minor in physics and convince faculty to come down from African American faculty to come from places like-

Casey Dreier: I mean, that's another example of the institutional challenge. You had to even hire the faculty to teach students to be trained in these fields. You're really starting from a bad, tough position.

Brian Odom: There are programs that are put in place. Then the other thing he has to do is he has to convince the faculty to come down, but he also has to convince the students who are from these communities to realize that things are actually changing. And that's a hard push in 1963, because everything they see is telling them that this is not true. Everything they see and everything they've known in their life is that these opportunities are not going to be available to them. The promise is going to go away. I'm going to risk a whole new career path based off of promise from the white community that they're going to provide me with, they're going to enable me access to jobs? It takes a lot of good faith, and it takes a strong character. And you're thinking about 18, 19, 20-year-olds who are having to make these decisions. These are people we should really know more about because this is radically risky what they're doing, but they're very brave in the face of this.

Casey Dreier: Would you say that kind of industrialization and economic benefit, was this explicitly seen as an intentional benefit of building up NASA from, I'd say, the government leadership at the time, from the Kennedy or Johnson administration? Was this a part of it or was this a... How did this rank in the intentionality, I guess, in terms of trying to engineer some sort of social change in these southern segregated states?

Brian Odom: Well, I think you pointed it out, right? It's real enough that you've got Bobby Kennedy showing up to meetings, wanting to know about progress. Are you making progress on this? And then very much going after people saying, "Look, you keep telling me this and you keep telling me this, but I don't think it's right." There's a whole other world that Bobby Kennedy's looking at across the south here as the attorney general there trying to make people get in line with this. So, it's very intentional. Lyndon Johnson, and go back to this modernization theory and these advisors that Kennedy's surrounding himself with, that Johnson is surrounding himself with. These are the theories that they're pushing, that these things actually will bring radical transformation to these societies. You can be a cynic here too. You can say, "I now know enough about this that I can be very cynical about it as well." Is Lyndon Johnson trying to enable to build a Democratic Party that's unified and also assure himself reelection? Is that what Kennedy's doing? Okay, but is there still something very positive coming from this outcome and it's very intentional? Yes, without question it is.

Casey Dreier: At this point, we've touched on a lot of basically of this Apollo era, which just seems, again, very important and transformative for the South and NASA obviously. How has this kind of evolved over time? Is it even possible to even ask this question the way I'm about to, or fair, which is how does the South see its relation to NASA at this point? You had a number of, again, articles in this collection talking about these interesting tourist opportunities, seeing NASA as a way to redefine perhaps how the rest of the country sees parts of the South, the religious kind of relationship or local relationship, mixed feelings about NASA centers nearby. But you say is there a broad or holistic kind of summary that you can give from your perspective that would sum up the South's relationship to NASA as we speak here in the 21st century?

Brian Odom: Yeah, I think that's a great question, really, and it just depends on who you asked. There are multiple perspectives here about all of this, and does the South still see NASA as an integral part of what it does, that just depends. I think one of the things you have to think about is how far beyond the gate does this go? People in Huntsville, do people in the city of Huntsville think that NASA is really important? Yes, without a doubt. It's written in everything here. It's in the signs. It's like you said, the tourism. You've got US Space and Rocket Center here, so space camp. People think about that. You can see the test stand in the distance, even from off the center. You can see all the rockets that are all over the place in the names of businesses. But the further away from Huntsville you travel, does that ripple continue? That's probably the better way to think of it. Is this still something that's important to southern politicians? Yes, without question. You can see in how hard they... One of the things that happened not too long ago was Space Force, so this new idea that, okay, who's going to benefit from Space Force? This is another creation of something else, not on the same scale as the creation of NASA or specifically the Apollo program, because that's one of the other things that we forget is that in 1965, '66, funding for the space program represented basically 5% of the discretionary budget of the United States government. It's not that anymore, but that's okay. But does that reduction change things? Well, without a doubt. It's not going to give you the... It's not going to provide the leverage for change that it once did, especially beyond the gates of those communities where it exists. But yeah, you could say the same thing about Florida. I mean, Florida, obviously when people think NASA, there are certain centers that they think about, and there are other centers that they don't. If you ask the American public, when you can think about NASA, what do you think about? Well, mainly they think of Florida and Houston. These are the two centers. Everybody else just gets lost in the shuffle. There are people in the state of Alabama who aren't sure there's a NASA presence here. They think of, "Oh, yeah, there's that space camp in Huntsville," but they don't understand. They may not know that, oh, yeah, there's also a huge research complex there. There's Marshall Space Flight Center. There's all these things that are here. It's never going to be on the scale that was for Apollo, how far beyond the gate does the ripple of reputation go. But yeah, does it still matter to the states? Oh, without a doubt.

Casey Dreier: Well, and I wonder too, with the expansion and maturation of commercial space and this new era we're entering into, the second order consequences of all of these southern NASA centers and launch facilities in the South is where Bullock or SpaceX is functionally moving to. It's southern Texas. Look where the number of companies setting up shop right around Kennedy to have access to, and that also relationship to, from the local political institutions trying to entice companies to set up shop in Florida and other places in the South. And I'm sure you see things like that around Marshall as well. It's almost like these become these focus points of future development because of this pre-existing infrastructure that has been built. And I wonder if that will change in some level or expand, as you've said, that go further beyond the gate as we kind of enter into this strange new world of private and commercial spaceflight.

Brian Odom: I think that that's one of the things about commercial. I mean, it just depends on what we mean by commercial. Are we talking industry? I mean, because I think what you could look back, if you look back in Apollo and you look in these communities in the south, one of the first things that NASA did was convince those communities to move near the centers, to be near the action. That's what you began to see, especially in Huntsville. Today, we have something, Cummings Research Park that is kind of a tech center of the world. There's a huge amount of aerospace industry that's located there. It's growing every day. I can tell you here on site the commercial companies that are here, just down the street, down the interstate there, we've got United Launch Alliance. United Launch Alliance, again, it is kind of a piece of this as well. It's government, it's industry hand in hand.

Casey Dreier: But then you also have Blue Origin setting up shop right down the street and Intuitive Machines centering in Houston. Those aren't accidents. They're kind of building on these infrastructures from what you said, this pulling in this contractor base along with the NASA centers themselves.

Brian Odom: Yeah. And that's the same thing as what we've seen, and it is what we've talked about this whole time, is that you do see these waves and you see these layers that are added to this mix, went back from the New Deal to World War II, to the Cold War missile environment, and then NASA and now commercial space. And there are these layers in these places if you're looking for expertise. And that's the thing that we're talking about now, that goes to the criticality of what we've talked about as well. These companies are moving to these places because this is where the expertise for that field is. That's where it's located. Go where the experts are. Build your company where the experts are. Have access to the government, but you also got access to this infrastructure. The number of people, one of the things that we're beginning to see is that it is a small world out there in aerospace, really. It feels huge at times, but what you see is this expertise moves around. It moves around the industry. It might have a startup, it might go back. Someone may work for the government, they may work for Blue Origin, they may work for ULA, and they kind of move around. And so these communities of knowledge really is what we're talking about, are so critical that we maintain those and we support those because once it's lost, it's gone. We're not just going to reinvent this world somewhere else. It's got to continue to be nurtured and supported. And that's what the political folks are for. They do a great job within these regions to maintain that. That's something that we mentioned. It's not only getting the funding put in place and building the infrastructure, but it's maintaining it over time. And that's where we are now, the care and feeding of these institutions, these communities of knowledge. I think commercial is part of that conversation. It's not different from, it is part of that and it's the same as it's been since Apollo. It took a lot of... One of the things that we forget is how large that investment for Apollo actually was. In terms of this, the transformation of these communities that it brought with it, and now this world that it has created, that everybody exists within. It's very unique and it's very unique around the world, and you just don't find it everywhere.

Casey Dreier: Well, Brian Odom, thank you so much for your time today. Brian is the Chief Historian of NASA, which is probably one of the best jobs on the planet, and the co-editor of the new collection, NASA and the American South, which as you probably can tell, I very much enjoyed and found fascinating. Thank you again for being with us today.

Brian Odom: Hey, thank you, Casey. Enjoyed talking to you.

Casey Dreier: Thank you for joining us. As always, you can find more episodes of the Space Policy Edition, as well as our weekly show, Planetary Radio at, or on every major podcast distribution network. If you like these shows, please subscribe, share, and drop us positive reviews on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen to them. That really helps us be found by other people. The Space Policy Edition is a production of The Planetary Society, an independent nonprofit space outreach organization based in Pasadena, California. We are membership based and anyone, even you, can be a member. They start at just $4 a month and you can learn more at Until next month, ad astra.