When I was a boy growing up in Houston, Texas, one of my favorite field trips was the drive down to Clear Lake to tour NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. One of the highlights of the visit—in addition to seeing Mission Control, eating astronaut ice cream, and picking up a new zero-gravity pen in the gift shop—was the enormous Saturn V rocket, lying on its side in sections, that greeted you as you approached the facility at the corner of Saturn Lane and 2nd Street.
In my day, the gargantuan moon rocket was outdoors, perched above the green grass on steel struts, exposed to the elements, proud and naked for all the world to see. This, understandably given Clear Lake’s marine environment, led, over the years, to some corrosion. So, between 2003 and 2006, the space launch system was restored and a climate controlled enclosure was built around it—basically a blind metal shed building. The age when American children grew up expecting to spend their adulthood exploring the next frontiers of space has indeed given way to an age when they grow up fretting about the wellbeing of walruses on the North Pole, and, in my view, there is no better signifier of this sad shift in horizons than the fact that the machine that represents one of humankind’s greatest achievements ever is now hidden from view in a building that, in its outward aspect, might as well be full of lawnmowers.
Well, I wasn’t the only child in Texas who wanted to become an astronaut but didn’t. There was at least one more, and he became an architect: none other than Brantley Hightower of San Antonio practice HiWorks Architecture, 2nd place winner, along with colleague Erica Goranson, of AN‘s Reimagine The Astrodome competition. He is now also an AN contributor. Like me, Hightower was inspired by his youthful visits to the Johnson Space Center and was similarly impressed by the nude Saturn V. Furthermore, he was disappointed, if not downright depressed, upon a recent visit to the facility with his own children to find that the monolithic totem of human achievement had been covered in an underwhelming shroud.
“You have no idea that the pinnacle of 20th-century engineering is sitting inside that metal building,” said Hightower in a statement. “It’s like they entombed it and in doing so took away so much of the power it has to inspire. It’s not that the building needs to draw attention to itself but what exists now is not appropriate. Its not good architecture.”
Back home in San Antone, Hightower got to thinking about a better solution for protecting and exhibiting the Saturn V. Though nobody asked him to do so, he sat down and bent his mind to the job and came up with an idea that NASA’s administrators, if not the President of the United States himself, should give careful consideration. Here’s the notion, from Hightower’s mouth:
The geometry of the proposed building allows the vehicle to be seen in its entirety from the corner of Saturn Lane and 2nd Street just as it was before it was enclosed. Internally, the building’s volume provides visitors with the necessary distance to experience the scale of the vehicle while also providing space for exhibits, lectures, and other special events. A series of elevated catwalks allow the vehicle to be viewed from above – a perspective never before possible. The building’s appearance reflects the mid-century aesthetic that defines the rest of the Johnson Space Center campus.