As gorgeous as the view from space may be, the view from Johnson Space Center is more surly and bound, a solid row of motels, restaurants, apartment complexes and box stores. NASA Road 1 runs the perimeter around the government's barbed-wire-and-drab-office complex on the swampy plains of southeast Houston. It's a road where the nation's space heroes get their Chinese takeout and drop off their dry cleaning.
In a strip shopping center on NASA Road 1, there is a pawn shop, an Italian restaurant and a salon called HairTex. There is also Space Center Souvenirs, a cramped gift shop, which is to this astroland what a surf shop would be to a beach town. This is where you get toy space shuttles, photographs, NASA sportswear and the much-sought-after mission patches. You can get a T-shirt decorated with cats wearing space suits, or an infant-sized onesie with the NASA logo that says "I Need My Space."
Late this morning, proprietors Cindy and Randy Hector were bracing for a high tide of customers to come down the road and into the souvenir shop. They'd already seen Air Force One sail overhead for a landing. The TV was on and the VCR was queued up to tape the hymns, eulogies and pageantry that Cindy figured they'd watch some other day, when they have more time to process it. She was busy fretting over a missing shipment of Columbia patches. Someone offered to calm her with a large Dr Pepper. Her husband tended to customers, regaling them with astronaut stories to temper the sense of loss. He made sure each of them signed his guest book.
Kalpana Chawla had been in here recently to buy a set of patches, Randy Hector said. "There was something on the news about them finding a Columbia patch in the woods, and people get all excited that it was being worn by an astronaut, but that's not the case," Hector said. "[Astronauts] come in here to buy patches to give to people later, so they can say the patch went to space.
"The thing is," he said, "you never really know if they're astronauts or not. They don't come right out and tell you."
Along this road, the space age melds with the everyday. Most astronauts long stopped looking like regulation crew-cut flyboys of yore, a worthy price of NASA's latter-day diversity. Engineers stopped wearing horn rims and short sleeves. The future, it turned out, came to resemble Casual Friday; living among NASA is a quiet life in nerdsville.
Like much of Houston, NASA Road 1 is unsuitable as a visual backdrop for grief or reflection, and doesn't offer much in the way of glamour, which, the locals say, is a point of pride.
Business is simply business in this town, founded on an ethic of commerce over all else. Houston is always tearing itself up and rebuilding in the name of progress. Those who live and work in and around Johnson Space Center weren't just looking for comfort and poignancy in today's memorial service for the seven astronauts killed in Saturday's explosion of the space shuttle Columbia; they know that to curtail the shuttle program in any way will affect them all, from executive engineers down to the people who deliver memorial bouquets from a floral shop called NASA Flowers.
"This is sort of the official headquarters for the outside world," says Richard Rogers, a longtime customer of Space Center Souvenirs. He doesn't work in aerospace, but he's one of those many self-described space nuts, able to recite the most marginal trivia of the space program. In fact, he's such a good customer that he's helping count extra inventory, cutting into surplus boxes of shuttle souvenirs the Hectors hadn't planned on selling until summertime. In fact, he's staying with the Hectors: "I live in Dallas. I work for Citibank. I spent the weekend moping and finally, last night, my wife says, 'You're going to Houston,' and called Southwest and got me a ticket."
Although some 10,000 people attended the service within the NASA compound, many more were trying to find the appropriate place to mourn on the fringes. At the Johnson Space Center's main gate, the flowers began to pile up and perhaps overstate their intent, while an evangelical group preached warnings of the End Times and the second coming of Christ foretold in the Columbia crash.
At Frenchies, an Italian restaurant in a strip mall down the road where the walls are lined with autographed pictures of astronauts through the decades, owner Frankie Camera was juggling interviews with TV news crews more than serving pasta. (If they didn't get what they needed here, a producer said, they could always try the Outpost Tavern, where shuttle crews traditionally have a party when their spaceflight team is announced; or a Cajun restaurant called Pe-Te's, which looms large in the lore of the space cowboy.)
Back at Space Center Souvenirs, a woman with long red hair held back in a red, white and blue scrunchy was paying for her purchases: color 8x10 glossies of Columbia's last crew, at $5 per print. (Prints of the doomed 1986 Challenger crew were $3.) She also asked for a space shuttle charm to put on her bracelet.
Her arm bore a long, red scratch, which it turns out she received in the Piney Woods. Her name is Tracey Horning and she works for the volunteer fire department in San Augustine, a small town in the middle of the debris trajectory. She'd spent the weekend looking for parts, and said she had been part of a team that located some human remains. On her day off, she'd decided to drive to Space City, to go right up to the Johnson gate.
"We worked all day long out there, since daylight, and you just get too busy for emotion," Horning said. "I didn't know what to think, and decided I needed to see the memorial, the things people had left there. I needed to see the crew's picture and put them all back together. It's not like I know them or their families. But it does feel like we did something for them."
The customers in the souvenir shop aren't paying attention when the president's eulogy ends and more hymns are sung. One woman is looking for stickers: "I just finished my September 11 memory book and here it is something else already. You can't keep up."
Rogers went out to the parking to listen for the jets that would fly the "Missing Man" formation. Over the noise of NASA Road 1's traffic and scanning a horizon of endless power lines and telephone wires, he saw them.
They curved around him and one arched up in solo salute. Cindy Hector ran out of the store with her camcorder but she was too late: The planes had disappeared behind the sign for the Vietnamese restaurant next door. The "Missing Man" plane popped out above the Pennzoil auto lube store sign, but by then it was just a white dot in another bright blue Texas sky, another collectible moment in the modern story of flight.