Right Stuff, Wrong Time
  View More Photos
Credit: Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle / AP
Johnson Space Center, home of the astronaut corps, sits amid the suburban sprawl of southeast Houston, across the road from a Jet Ski–filled saltwater inlet called Clear Lake and four miles south of Ferguson's new office at Boeing. Johnson hasn't changed much since the Mercury Seven arrived in the summer of 1962  – the squat beige buildings have been there from the outset, and the scrupulously anonymous numbered streets and single-lettered avenues are relics of an era when bland efficiency (and Cold War paranoia) was synonymous with progress.

The changes outside Johnson's gates have been easier to spot. When the shuttle started to fly, in 1981, the area around the center still included cattle pastures and rice fields. Astronaut life reflected the quaint surroundings. When these brave men weren't blasting off into the heavens, they would gather at the local softball fields to play a couple of games, or head over to the Outpost Tavern for a bucket or two of Lone Star.

"It's a totally different feel now," Jerry Ross, a 30-year veteran of the corps (and former Air Force flight engineer) who retired in January, told me. "People are gone so long to train for the ISS in Russia and Europe and Japan and Canada that you don't see them for months at a time. You don't get that close camaraderie that we used to have. It tends to be a little more individualistic."