On a recent Friday, I entered the auditorium where one possible future of Kendall Square died. No one could figure out how to turn on the lights, so everything was ghostly and hushed. One small work light was on the stage, shining dimly through the rungs of a ladder.
This auditorium was new in December 1969, the year the first two Apollo moon landings took place. And it was crammed past capacity with NASA employees on Monday, Dec. 29, when the head of the space agency flew up from Washington to deliver the bad news. The NASA electronics research center that everyone in the room worked for would be shut down the following June.
If you’ve ever heard the urban legend that NASA’s mission control was supposed to be in Kendall, but that President Kennedy’s assassination spoiled that, I want to set the record straight. (More than one tour guide has erroneously told visitors that the Apollo 13 astronauts would’ve radioed, “Cambridge, we have a problem.”) And I wanted to go inside the handful of buildings that NASA gave to Cambridge, before they’re knocked down in the next year or two.
Cambridge was a key player in the space race. Engineers at Draper Laboratory designed the guidance computers and software that helped Apollo spacecraft reach the moon. And several NASA advisors during that time had ties to MIT, as did Kennedy’s science advisor.
But by the time the space agency announced that it would build an electronics research campus in Kendall Square, in 1964, three years had passed since Houston was chosen as the site for the Manned Spacecraft Center — a decision made in the first year of Kennedy’s administration and influenced by powerful Texas politicians in Congress like Sam Rayburn and Albert Thomas. (A 1962 NASA memo confirms that only Florida and Texas were considered for the mission control room; it moved from Cape Canaveral to Houston in 1965.)
In fact, according to a NASA history paper, the decision by NASA administrator James Webb to put the electronics research site in Cambridge was deliberately kept quiet in 1962. Ted Kennedy was running to represent Massachusetts in the US Senate, and NASA feared that the public would regard Webb’s decision as a favor to the candidate or his elder brother, the president.
It was in August 1964 that a banner headline ran on this paper’s front page: “NASA Picks Kendall Sq. Site.” City officials predicted that the space agency would create 2,100 jobs in Cambridge, plus an additional 2,000 jobs at related firms; they expected 400 companies to be drawn to the city by the NASA center. To get ready for NASA’s arrival, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority cleared 25 acres of land, demolished 50 buildings, relocated businesses, and filled in part of the Broad Canal.
NASA began hiring people, renting temporary office space, and constructing a campus. Employees were designing satellites, computers that blended digital and analog electronics, holographic data storage, and automated landing technology for the space shuttle program. One silo-shaped structure on the NASA campus was designed with a retractable roof, for testing solar power systems. The Electronics Research Center grew to 850 employees.
When the center was abruptly closed in 1970, NASA was cutting jobs and projects, such as an unmanned trip to Mars, three planned Apollo flights to the moon, and a nuclear-powered rocket. But did politics play a role? President Nixon was no fan of the Kennedys, and Massachusetts voted for his opponent in the 1968 election.
The NASA Electronics Research Center is “the only major center the space agency has closed,” according to the author of the official NASA history, Andrew Butrica. “Future research will shed light on [the] question” of whether the closure was more about budget cuts or political revenge. Just six of the complex’s planned 14 buildings were built.
Massachusetts lucked out in one way: its former governor, the Republican John Volpe, was serving as Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation. Volpe worked out a deal to transfer the NASA facility to the Department of Transportation and turn it into a transportation-related consultancy that would conduct research for various branches of the government.
The deal required no new Congressional funding; the new DOT center would charge government clients for its work. About half of the 850 former NASA employees took a job with the Department of Transportation. (In 1990, the research center was named in honor of Volpe.)
In its 53 years of existence, the DOT center has helped government “customers” like the Federal Aviation Administration design new air traffic management systems to reduce congestion and accidents, or the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gather and distribute data to make trucking safer. On my recent visit, I saw how Volpe is helping the Navy track ship movements around the world, and the Federal Railroad Administration monitor the alertness of train engineers on long trips.
But sitting on its 14-acre campus, surrounded by parking lots and lawns, the Volpe Center always seemed detached from the rest of Kendall, even as companies such as Google, Biogen, and Microsoft moved in.
“It was always this closed-off, very insular place,” says Bob Buderi, the author of a recent history of Kendall Square, Where Futures Converge. “It did not really spin [companies] out into the community or affect the mentality or psyche of the community. It felt like you shouldn’t trespass there.”
As time went by, and Kendall Square attracted tech and biotech companies, the land that the Volpe Center sat on grew more valuable. In 2016, the federal government chose MIT’s real estate arm to redevelop the parcel. (The university’s purchase price: $750 million.)
The first step would be building a new home for the Volpe Center’s researchers; that clean white box on Binney Street opened earlier this fall. Employees finished moving in earlier in November.
Buderi said he sometimes thinks about the alternate history of Kendall Square, if NASA had stayed and expanded over the last 50 years. Today, the largest private employers in the city are drug developers such as Takeda Pharmaceuticals, Novartis, and Sanofi.
“The original vision was these three giant towers, and several thousand people,” he said. “It would have been this magnet of other space electronics firms around it. Cambridge might’ve felt more like a government town. It’s hard to see it evolving into the biotech hub of the world.”
The last few Volpe Center employees who transferred from the NASA research center have retired in the past year or two, said Cassandra Allwell, the Volpe Center’s director of communications, (Volpe’s total workforce today is about 650 people, down from 1,000 a decade ago.)
On Dec. 26, the federal government will turn over the old beige NASA buildings to MIT, which will demolish them, floor by floor, in the next year or two. That will mark the end of NASA’s physical imprint on Kendall.
But on the top floor of the new Volpe Center, overlooking the old site, a library has a few relics on display: architectural models of the NASA buildings and a gray globe of the moon. The Sea of Tranquility is clearly marked, and the wooden base is labeled with a year that was a great one for space exploration, but a tough one for Kendall Square: 1969.