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Below are summaries of the two stories explored in this website. Individual episodes are accessible directly from the remote control, in the section marked "stories":


Back to Nature
Brownwood subdivision was once the most elite residential section of Baytown. Perched on a bay fronting the Houston Ship Channel, it featured the expensive homes of executives and engineers for the nation's largest petrochemical complex, which had sprouted nearby. Excessive use of groundwater -- both by industry and the municipalities that grew around it -- caused the subdivision in the 1960s to begin to sink into the bay, slowly at first. Eventually, Brownwood was destroyed almost completely by Hurricane Alicia in 1983. Today, the abandoned peninsula has returned to Nature, partly on its own and partly through the efforts of a marshland restoration project funded by chemical companies under court order.


In caricature, the story of Brownwood subdivision introduces themes at the heart of the story of Houston: a rich but ultimately inhospitable land, upon which human development must be considered tenuous. Now desolate, Brownwood presents a concrete image of how the world might appear after mankind is gone.


Off to the Moon
On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy declared to a near-capacity crowd gathered at Rice Stadium that he wanted a "banner of peace" on the moon before the decade was out. But until a few short weeks before the flight of Apollo 11, there were no plans for astronauts to plant a flag on the lunar surface.


To fly on the moon, the flag had to be both reimagined and shielded. NASA engineers developed hardware that would allow the flag to appear to wave -- without any wind -- and an insulating sheath to protect the assembly from the intense heat of a lunar landing. Successes and setbacks on the moon allowed the engineers to refine their invention: When Apollo 11 astronauts were unable to extend the crossbar fully, the resulting accidental ripple made the flag seem like it was truly waving; the effect was copied on later missions. And when a bracket problem caused Apollo 12's flag to droop, engineers improved their design for subsequent flights to prevent it from happening again.

The flag's makeover serves as a colorful summary of the inventive planning and testing procedures developed in the manned spaceflight program. NASA, based in Houston, is a giant project devoted to the active transposition of earth's life-supporting conditions to foreign environments.


But the details of the flag story are evocative in other ways as well. They illustrate some of the strategies necessary to adapt generic objects to particular locations. In creating the flag mechanism, NASA engineers continued their practice of constant experimentation and testing. They learned from their mistakes, improving their design on successive missions. Their transformation of the flag followed the structure of almost any transplant: they had to change the object itself so that it would work in the new environment, and they had to protect it from new hazards it would encounter there.


How the flag was reinvented so that it could be placed on the moon makes an interesting story, but also makes a good parable for the settlement and growth of Houston. Here too, ideals from other lands had to be transformed and repackaged before they could be given form and implanted in a new environment. And the experiments continue.

Larry Albert
November 21, 2000


Photos from top of page: Flag at Rice Stadium, 1962. Courtesy Aubrey Calvin. Brownwood subdivision, 1994. (Two photos) by Eric R. Shamp. Used with permission. Footprint in lunar soil, 1969. Courtesy NASA.


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