Houston's Power Mix: Space, Energy, Old West Legacy
By Dan Schlossberg
Shuttle Photo:The first word ever spoken on the lunar surface was "Houston."
It happened on July 20, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped
foot on the moon and said, "One small step from man. One giant leap for mankind."
Armstrong and Aldrin were communicating with the Manned Space Flight Center, later
renamed the Johnson Space Center in honor of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, a
native Texan who was also an advocate of space exploration by the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA). The training facility for U.S. astronauts is located 23
miles south of Houston.
Because of the NASA center, the one-time capital of the Republic of Texas is called "the
Space City." Before 2005, locals bemoaned the space between the Astros' spot in the
National League standings and the top of the baseball world.
The team went 43 seasons before winning its first pennant, albeit as a wild-card
champion. Prior to its 2005 Fall Classic contest with the Chicago White Sox, the Astros
had qualified for the playoffs eight different times but always lost before reaching the
Changes of nickname didn't help: the original Houston Colt .45s, a 1962 National League
expansion club with an affinity for defeat, became the Houston Colts, then took the name
Astros after opening the world's first domed ballpark three years later.
Once called "the eighth wonder of the world," the cavernous Astrodome not only created
new playing conditions but mandated the creation of synthetic turf after natural grass
refused to grow there. Visitors liked the constant 72-degree temperature but said the
air-conditioning currents blew out for Astro hitters and in for opponents.
The Ryan Express simply blew batters away. After becoming baseball's first Million Dollar
Man in 1980, native Texan Nolan Ryan spent nine seasons as Houston's main man. Jeff
Bagwell, who surfaced shortly after Ryan left, later became the first Astro to be National
League Rookie of the Year and the first to win a Most Valuable Player award.
Hampered by the spacious dimensions of the Astrodome, Bagwell was the chief
beneficiary when the team opened Enron Field for the 2000 season. Within four years,
Minute Maid had replaced the scandal-plagued Enron as the title sponsor.
Veteran broadcaster Milo Hamilton also made some noise. The voice of the Astros since
1985, he not only started his 60th season at the mike this spring but penned his
controversial memoirs in Making Airwaves: 60 Years at Milo's Microphone, released by
Sports Publishing last month.
Milo's book mirrors the excitement of an ongoing downtown metamorphosis. Thanks to a
$4 billion building boom that began in 1995, Houston's handsome skyline seems to
change by the hour.
Downtown Houston The only city with a pair of retractable roof ballparks (including
football-friendly Reliant Stadium), Houston added another swanky sports venue with the
October 2003 opening of the Toyota Center, home of professional basketball teams for
men (the Houston Rockets) and women (the Houston Comets), as well as a hockey
franchise (the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League).
The NFL is represented by the Houston Texans, who arrived in 2002 to fill the vacuum
created by the departure of the old Houston Oilers.
Big sports events, such as baseball's 2004 All-Star Game, invariably have spinoffs that
turn a single game into a week-long festival.
The All-Star Gala that year, for example, was hosted by the ultramodern downtown
aquarium, where activities included playing carnival games for baseball cards and riding a
toy train through a tunnel surrounded by living sea creatures.
Though the Gala was a lavish private party reserved for VIPs, players, and media
members, All-Star FanFest was open to the public. It was held in the George R. Brown
Convention Center, fresh from a $165 million expansion. With 1,180,000 square feet of
exhibition, meeting, and registration space, it ranks among the nation's top 10 convention
The need is obvious: Houston is growing so fast that it now ranks as the fourth-largest city
in the United States, with nearly two million people in the city and more than twice that
number in the metropolitan area. Houstonians work hard and play hard.
The Hobby Center joined the growing theater district in 2002, joining the six-year-old
Bayou Place in providing entertainment of every conceivable description. The Main Event,
blending music, dance, and lasers, and Main Street Square, where clubs and night spots
surround gushing fountains, were added this year. Several times a week, four blocks of
the pedestrian-friendly complex are closed to vehicular traffic.
Locals love museums, theater, and festivals.
There's a fire museum, a printing museum, a children's museum, a crafts museum, and
even something called the National Museum of Funeral History, where people are dying to
get in. But all of them combined don't draw as well as the Houston Livestock Show and
Rodeo, which packs Reliant Stadium with sellout crowds in late February and early March.
For those who prefer culture to cowboys, the Houston Grand Opera is marking its 52nd
anniversary this year and the Houston Ballet is observing its 37th. Both feature ongoing
programs, along with the Alley Theater, one of the oldest resident professional theater
groups in the U.S. The Houston Symphony's season offers a theme of fairy tales, while the
Society for the Performing Arts imports a myriad of artists and companies from around the
Since warm weather lingers longer in south Texas, a flurry of ethnic festivals also provides
options for visiting sports fans with free time. Turkish, Italian, Greek, Chicano, and
Asian-American festivals are annual events, and there's even something called the
Original Houston Hot Sauce Festival.
Like Tex-Mex food, other Texas originals are always popping up somewhere.
One-of-a-kind artifacts from Texas history, including a Davy Crockett fiddle from 1819, are
on display at the San Jacinto Museum of History. Sam Houston's signature red sash is
there too, along with a Bowie knife dating from 1830 (when Mexico ruled).
History is important in Houston. Founded more than 160 years ago, it served three years
as the seat of the Republic of Texas. After the capital moved to Austin, locals decided to
develop a port for shipping livestock and crops. The port was founded in 1841, with the
Houston Ship Channel opening in 1914 -- in time to help locals profit from the war in
Europe. Houston now ranks as America's second largest port in total tonnage and the
largest in foreign waterborne commerce.
The link to the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles distant, proved as almost as vital as the discovery
of oil in nearby Beaumont, east of town, 13 years earlier. Before the Depression, 40 oil
companies were operating out of Houston.
Houston of the 21st Century, with 5,000 energy-related businesses, is still considered the
energy capital of the world. But it's diversified metroplex, an industrial, commercial, and
financial center with a growing reputation as a tourist mecca (19 million visitors and more
than 100 conventions per year).
With the SpaceCity nickname in mind, some of those visitors will willingly experience the
force of a rocket's blast at Blast Zone, Space Center Houston's new sensory experience.
In addition to the astronauts, who get paid to experience rocket power, a long list of
famous locals has helped put Houston on the map. Beyond Nolan Ryan and Roger
Clemens are Hollywood stars Clark Gable, Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and Renee
Zellweger; playwright Edward Albee; race car driver A.J. Foyt; Olympic gold medalist Carl
Lewis; gymnast Mary Lou Retton; CBS-TV anchormen Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather;
eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes; heart surgeon Michael DeBakey; U.S. Sen. Lloyd
Bentsen; and the 41st and 43rd Presidents of the United States.
The city has the nation's second-largest theater district, the third-largest population of
working artists, and the fourth-largest museum district. There are 275,000 college
students and an annual attendance of two million at the 17-block downtown theater district.
Landmarks certain to be on the must-see lists of visitors include the San Jacinto
Monument, an obelisk that towers 570 feet over the Houston Ship Channel in memorial to
an 1836 battle; the historic homes of Sam Houston Park, an urban oasis surrounded by
skyscrapes; the U.S.S. Texas, a 1914 battleship that is the last surviving dreadnaught;
and the Houston Ship Channel Tour, which takes 90 minutes aboard the inspection vessel
MV Sam Houston. Kids will love the Reliant Astrodome, the world's first domed stadium,
and the Houston Zoo, home of 5800 animals representing 700 species.
Except for oppressive humidity and occasional hurricanes that blow in from the Gulf, the
climate is benign, with only 14 measurable snowfalls since 1939. The average winter
daytime temperature is 66 degrees F.
With so much to see and do, the 16 downtown hoteliers have little trouble filling their
To avoid the noise and commotion of downtown, many visitors choose the Houstonian, a
288-room property in the Galleria district. Nestled in an 18-acre wooded tract, the
four-diamond hotel features a fitness center with 125,000 square feet, 100 group classes
per week, and a staff of more than 30 certified personal trainers. The complex includes
pools, tennis courts, a gymnasium, and even a rock-climbing wall and boxing ring.
The soothing setting of the Trellis, the Houstonian's spa, provides a place to unwind after
rigorous workouts. The three-year-old spa has 17,000 square feet of relaxation space
that includes a float pool and more than 100 treatment options. The cozy Houstonian
lobby, built around a huge central fireplace, is also conducive to meditating -- especially
with a good book in hand.
Though rooms are large and comfortable at the four-star resort, the Houstonian's main
calling card is personalized service -- including free shuttle service within the area.
That means guests can request a lift to Truluck's, a steak-and-seafood restaurant that is
one of the most popular and prestigious places in the city.
Getting around downtown Houston is easy: free trolley buses and sleek-looking streetcars
run on a 7.5-mile line ticketed for future expansion, while shuttles whisk passengers
downtown from either major airport (Houston Intercontinental or Hobby) in 30 minutes or
less (longer in rush hour).
For further information, contact the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau,
Suite 100, 901 Bagby, Houston, TX 77002 (Tel. 713-437-5275, Fax 713-227-0986),
www.visithoustontexas.com or the Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa, 111 N. Post Oak Lane,
Houston, TX 77024 (Tel. 713-680-2626), www.houstonian.com.