Communities on Clear Lake grew up with and were shaped by the space program
In three Clear Lake-area cities, civic pride in NASA’s achievements can be seen on almost every corner, and local traditions have roots in the trials and triumphs of space exploration.
Jeff Corbin, a pilot and aeronautics executive, has a family history in the area that goes back to when Timber Cove, El Lago and Nassau Bay were built in the 1960s. Then, they were small lake side neighborhoods surrounded by trees and prairie land. Supermarkets were miles away, there were few restaurants, many oyster shell roads, and a rope-pull ferry instead of the Kemah Bridge.
“It was a wonderful time to grow up here,” Corbin said. “I was friends with a bunch of astronaut kids, and we had the best time riding our bikes and playing in the woods.”
Splashdown parties, yard signs showing which astronauts were on a mission, and streets clogged with TV trucks were commonplace for Corbin and others who grew up in the three neighborhoods, he said.
“It was around us all the time,” he said. “We just didn’t think anything of it.”
Growing up in the area even influenced his career path, Corbin said.
“It was all about aeronautics here,” Corbin said. “I’d never been higher than a ladder before I had my first flying lesson, so I guess it did have an influence. Now, I work at Ellington, and I think about how Neil Armstrong trained here and can’t believe how lucky I am to be here.”
Timber Cove was first developed in 1958 and is arguably the original NASA neighborhood as it was home to many early Johnson Space Center employees as well as four of the Mercury Seven — John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra. Gordon Cooper lived right next door in El Lago Estates.
Jon Keeney is mayor of Taylor Lake Village, which incorporates Timber Cove and El Lago Estates. There was a time astronauts were the only people who could afford to live in the area, although today their homes can be considered rather modest, Keeney said.
“They were attracted by the mature trees and park-like surrounds, which still attract residents today,” Keeney said.
Other Taylor Lake astronaut residents include Elliot See, Jim Lovell, John Young and Pete Conrad. While considered American heroes, they also were humble members of the community who volunteered for various organizations, including Boy and Girl Scouts, and worshipped at local churches, Keeney said.
Longtime Taylor Lake resident Deborah Griffin helped organize the city’s 50th anniversary. Griffin is proud to have collected photos, memorabilia and aural histories as part of the project, she said.
“We also created a city patch inspired by the mission patches of the astronauts, had tours of astronaut homes and other celebrations,” Griffin said. “John Glenn was unable to attend, but sent a lovely hand-written note and the Lovell children returned.”
Astronauts and other NASA employees created a close-knit community whose values and traditions are still felt today, Griffin said.
“They were very focused on physical fitness, which is why we have our capsule-shaped pool and our fantastic recreation center, which was funded by first residents buying shares in the center,” Griffin said. “John and Annie Glenn enjoyed boating on Taylor Lake, and John tells a fun story of dropping Annie at the entrance of the channel so she could swim home.”
Christmas Eve luminaries are an Apollo-era tradition that continues in both Timber Cove and the neighboring city of El Lago. These paper bags secured by sand and illuminated by candles were first arranged around yards and driveways in 1968 for the Apollo 8 Mission that saw Jim Lovell of Timber Cove and Frank Borman and William Anders of El Lago orbit the Moon for the first time and make a famous Christmas Eve television broadcast.
“After lighting luminaries, we walk to the Timber Cove bridge and sing Christmas carols,” Griffin said. “Usually, someone will accompany us on guitar, and in the past that has included Mercury’s Scott Carpenter and then International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield.”
The city of El Lago was established in 1961 and over the years has been home to at least 47 astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon; Story Musgrave, veteran of six space shuttle flights on five different orbiters; and Peggy Whitson, who in 2017 became the first female astronaut to command the International Space Station. The local elementary school is named for Ed White, who was the first man to walk in space, and there are two parks named for astronauts. There’s the Neil Armstrong Park and McNair Memorial Park, named for astronaut Ronald McNair, who was killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. There is a pavilion named for Dr. Ellen Ochoa, a former astronaut and director of Johnson Space Center. In addition, the city’s logo features a space shuttle.
“Our streets, parks, school and pavilions are named for some of our brightest residents,” said El Lago Mayor John Skelton, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2005 and served on the council for six years. “I don’t know any other city that wears its civic pride in that way.”
Skelton, an IT executive at NASA Johnson Space Center, believes a high number of current residents continue to work at NASA.
“I see so many of my neighbors at work,” Skelton said. They choose to live in El Lago because it’s a close-knit community where people watch out for each other, children are safe playing outside and people can enjoy the lakes and local attractions, he said.
Homeowners Association President Joe Neigut has lived in El Lago for 19 years. His favorite El Lago anecdote is of Neil Armstrong having a parade around the city and then meeting with neighborhood children in his home to answer their questions about the moon landing.
“While it speaks to the quality of the man, it also says something about the spirit of our community,” Neigut said.
Nassau Bay, incorporated in 1970, features a space shuttle in its logo and plenty of local landmarks that reference space, including a sculpture park in the town square depicting NASA milestones.
Mayor Mark Denman, who has lived in Nassau Bay for more than 30 years, believes his city can lay claim to being the most NASA neighborhood of all.
“After all, we were named Nassau Bay so the astronauts and engineers moving here from Florida would feel more at home,” he said.
The city has been home to at least 60 astronauts and hundreds more NASA employees. Denman estimates about 25 percent of the city’s current residents work at NASA.
“We’ve even had one resident astronaut, Ron Garan, who voted in our municipal election from space,” Denman said.
Denman is proud his city’s special connection with NASA will be commemorated with new public artwork, he said. For the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, a sleek obelisk-like monument will be constructed on NASA Parkway. Standing 50 feet high, it will have an “infinity light” beaming from the top, “reaching to space and beyond.”
As NASA focuses on returning to the moon, there are plenty of residents in Timber Cove, El Lago and Nassau Bay who are involved in projects such as Orion, Gateway and Artemis, which shows how the cities continue to have a special relationship with the agency, Neigut said.
“I think it’s pretty likely that the next person who steps foot on the moon will be someone who lives in one of our three cities,” Neigut said. “Given how close we are, and that we have astronauts living here, we have a pretty good chance. I’m certainly rooting for it.”