NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston has been the agency's human spaceflight hub for half a century, though not always under its current name.

JSC was established in 1961 as the Manned Spacecraft Center. It was envisioned as a key support facility in NASA's quest to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the ambitious goal laid out by President John F. Kennedy in May 1961.

The Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center at the conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.
The Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center at the conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.
Credit: NASA

The center became operational in 1963 and was renamed 10 years later to honor Texas' own Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, who died in January 1973.

Here are some basic facts about JSC, which employs about 14,000 civil servants and contractors and occupies more than 200 buildings spread across 1,700 acres (690 hectares) of land. [NASA's 17 Apollo Moon Missions in Pictures]

Astronaut training center

JSC is the home of NASA's astronaut corps. Every one of the agency's spaceflyers trains there before blasting off, as do foreign astronauts bound for the International Space Station.

Such training takes many forms. The Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, for example, allows astronauts, engineers and mission support staff to practice operating the 430-ton space station with full-scale mock modules.

Astronauts prepare to live and work in microgravity with the help of partial-gravity and virtual-reality simulators at JSC, and they practice spacewalks at a Johnson satellite facility called the Neutral Buoyancy Lab — an enormous pool that holds 6.2 million gallons (23.5 million liters) of water.

Further, before NASA's space shuttle program ended in July 2011, pilots and commanders kept their flying skills sharp in T-38 jets based at an airfield close to JSC. 

Houston, we have a problem

JSC's Mission Control — now formally known as the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Mission Control Center — has helped plan, support and operate every NASA human spaceflight mission since 1965.

Indeed, off-Earth NASA astronauts have long used "Houston" when addressing their handlers in Mission Control, exemplified by Jack Swigert's famous utterance during 1970's harrowing Apollo 13 moon mission: "Houston, we've had a problem."

That problem, incidentally, was an exploded oxygen tank that crippled the mission's service module and threatened the lives of all three astronauts onboard. Some quick and creative thinking got the men home safely, after a dramatic slingshot trip around the moon.

The 1995 movie "Apollo 13" took some creative license with the phrase, changing it to "Houston, we have a problem" and having the words come out of Apollo 13 commander James Lovell's mouth.

Teams of engineers and technicians at Mission Control are on duty around the clock every day, keeping watch over the astronauts who have established a continuous human presence aboard the $100 billion space station for a dozen years.

These flight controllers monitor the crewmembers' health and safety and ensure that all spacecraft systems are operating properly.

Mission Control also houses a training room in which simulated spaceflights are practiced, a Life Sciences Control Room that helps oversee spaceborne experiments and the Exploration Planning Operations Center, which tests out concepts for journeys beyond low-Earth orbit.

Mission Control's Apollo Flight Control Room, which oversaw NASA's manned missions to the moon, has been preserved as a national historic landmark. The room was last used in 1995, to operate space shuttle missions.

A center of research

JSC is also engaged in a variety of research, exploring ways to keep astronauts healthy in orbit, get the most scientific return out of their off-Earth stays and help them reach more far-flung destinations, such as Mars or asteroids. [Infographic: NASA Centers' New Mission]

For example, JSC scientists study ways to mitigate the worst effects of microgravity and radiation exposure on the human body. They're also working to develop new and better life support systems, in-space living quarters and spacewalk gear.

JSC houses the Space Food Systems Laboratory, where biochemists come up with meals for astronauts and figure out space-friendly packaging and preparation methods.   

Space technology advancements like NASA's Robonaut 2 (left) can help humanity launch more ambitious space exploration missions.
Space technology advancements like NASA's Robonaut 2 (left) can help humanity launch more ambitious space exploration missions.
Credit: NASA

Further, JSC worked with car manufacturer General Motors to build the first humanoid robot ever to reach space. The $2.5 million Robonaut 2, which arrived at the space station in February 2011, is designed to help astronauts with complex chores and keep the orbiting lab running properly.

JSC is also leading development of the Space Exploration Vehicle, which can be configured to fly freely through space or sit atop a 12-wheeled chassis to become a rover about the size of a pickup truck. Either way, the SEV's pressurized cabin can carry two astronauts on 14-day trips.

Another Johnson project is the Morpheus planetary lander, an experimental vehicle that demonstrates new "green" propellants and autonomous landing-hazard detection technology. Morpheus, which could carry about 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) to the moon someday, crashed during its first free-flight test in August 2012.

Visitors Center

Space Center Houston is the Johnson Space Center's visitors center. Exhibits and tours offer a look at spacecraft, astronaut  gear, laboratories and training facilities. The center is open every day except Dec. 25. Also, Oct. 8 is reserved for home-schooled visitors. Space Center Houston is located at 1601 NASA Parkway, about 25 miles south of downtown Houston.

— Mike Wall, Senior Writer