Discovery launches Houston's morale

Even though it took place more than 1,000 miles away in Florida, the September liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery was music to Houston's ears. The relaunching of the United States manned space effort has served as an important morale boost to the city that has linked its name with space ever since ``Houston'' was an Earthling's first word spoken on the moon.

After years of almost exclusively bad economic news following this decade's continuing oil bust, Houston is beginning to show solid signs of economic recovery. Unemployment is down more than 3 percent over last year to 6.3 percent, while the total number of jobs was up 2 percent to 1.41 million in June. Manufacturing jobs alone have increased more than 4 percent.

So when the shuttle sailed off safely into the blue, Houston - home to NASA's Johnson Space Center and Discovery's five-man crew - saw good reason to celebrate. ``NASA and Houston back on top to stay,'' went the theme of a ``welcome home'' party for the crew attended by 5,000 Houstonians.

The oil bust, during which this city lost more than 200,000 jobs, provided an incentive for oil-related companies to consider how they might adapt to serving the space industry. It also led to greatly lowered real estate prices and an available pool of skilled labor, both attractive factors for companies, including those in aerospace considering relocation or expansion.

The result is that Houston has a number of large and small successes to tout when talking about the growth of aerospace-related business. Companies with names like McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, and Unisys are among those expanding here to meet NASA's demands for the shuttle and the proposed space station.

Several smaller companies that relied almost exclusively on energy-related contracts now garner growing parts of their business in aerospace. One offshore drilling company's extensive work with O-rings led to a role in evaluating the shuttle booster's redesign; another Houston company's experience in plugging high-pressure-line leaks in refineries helped solve a leak in the shuttle's rocket steering system.

But for a city that built a public-relations campaign around a poster featuring Houston's futuristic skyline orbiting Earth, the principal boost from the country's return to space, at least in the short run, will be to its spirits.

``For Houston in general it [the shuttle relaunching] has largely a psychological effect,'' says Robert Hodgin, an associate professor of economics at the University of Houston in Clear Lake. ``It says, `Yes, things are on the move again.'''

But in the Clear Lake area in southeast Houston, where Johnson Space Center rose from abandoned rice fields in the 1960s, the return of the shuttle program and a concomitant growth in the aerospace industry is more directly felt.

``The people are starting to come back,'' says Les (Pe-Te) Johnson, who owns the Cajun Bar-B-Q House, a few miles from the space center and just across the road from Ellington Field. The former Air Force base is where the Discovery crew's party was held and where Grumman Aerospace plans a 2,000-employee engineering and production center.

Mr. Johnson, whose restaurant's walls are covered with astronauts' signed photos and other space memorabilia, says his business fell by 20 percent after the Challenger explosion 33 months ago. ``But it's been a complete turnaround'' over the past few months, he says.

The resumption of shuttle flights, is part of the reason, says Johnson, as are developments across the street. A countdown for the next mission, Atlantis, which is scheduled for the end of this month, was under way early yesterday. Grumman, which originally planned to come to Houston if it won a space station contract, decided on a major Houston facility for defense systems development even after losing the space station bid to McDonnell Douglas.

``They've started bringing in some of their people from New York,'' Johnson adds, noting that the frequent lessons he had to give newcomers in Creole cuisine before the Challenger disaster are required once again. ``The new ones don't know nothin' about red beans and rice.''

Dr. Hodgin estimates that between a quarter and a third of the Clear Lake area's economy is tied directly to space and aerospace. But he adds that just as Houston worked to diversify its economy from a dependence on oil, the Clear Lake area is less dependent on aerospace now than before Challenger exploded.

``That led the area to promote itself differently,'' he says - tourism and a stable petrochemical industry have received new emphasis. About 1 million tourists now visit the area each year, with that number expected to triple by the time a new Disney-developed visitors' center is completed at NASA in 1992.

The Houston area is also seeing small but steady growth in the number of companies adapting space-related technology to consumer products. And space commercialization, involving private ventures in space, is another sector that could play an important role in Houston's future.

But for now, large government contracts are what keep Houston's aerospace sector afloat. That explains the more than passing interest here in NASA's space station, and the new President's and Congress's commitment to it.

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