Nearly 50 years after "Houston" became the first word ever spoken by man on the surface of the moon, the city that thinly tethered the historic Apollo 11 crew to Earth more than 238,000 miles away is in the midst of celebration. NASA apparel is fashionable, restaurant menus entice with lunar-inspired dishes and films like "Spacecamp" and "Apollo 13" yet again grace the local big screens.

It's all an epic throwback party for a moment in time on July 20, 1969, that both captured the attention of the world and heralded a new age of human exploration. On that historic date, at 4:15 p.m. EST, while tens of millions held their breath back home, the Apollo Lunar Module "Eagle" gently touched down for the first time on the lunar surface.

"Houston, Tranquility Base here," astronaut Neil Armstrong radioed home to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "The Eagle has landed."

A photograph of the Lunar Module at Tranquility Base taken by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission.
A photograph of the Lunar Module at Tranquility Base taken by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission. (Photo: NASA)

Several hours later, Armstrong dropped three feet from the ladder of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle and took the first steps on the lunar surface.

"That's one small step for man," he famously broadcast to an estimated 600 million people watching around the world, "One giant leap for mankind."

Five decades later, Houston is leading the country in honoring not only the historic legacy of Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew mates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, but also the NASA engineers, scientists, administrators and countless others who contributed to their success.

"It reminds people what we as a society can accomplish if we put our minds to it," John Charles, former chief of the International Science Office of NASA's Human Research Program, told MNN. "And I think that it has always set the bar for other activities."

The winning posters for Houston's 'Project Mars' competition on display outside the trendy eatery Third Coast.
The winning posters for Houston's 'Project Mars' competition on display outside the trendy eatery Third Coast. (Photo: Michael d'Estries/MNN)

For others, such as former NASA astronaut Jerry Ross, the Apollo 11 anniversary offers an opportunity to regain the bold exploratory spirit he believes has been tempered in recent decades.

"It means for me that time has gone by and I'm a little concerned that we haven't progressed further in the spaceflight program," he told MNN. "We've done great work, but we should have done more. And I'm a little frustrated that our country's leadership hasn't stepped out as boldly as President Kennedy did to establish new goals for us, establish timelines for those goals, and to provide resources to allow NASA to go."

An example of the inspirational messages on display throughout the TMC Innovation Institute. Since 2014, the healthcare tech incubator has helped raise more than $500 million for new startups.
An example of the inspirational messages on display throughout the TMC Innovation Institute. Since 2014, the healthcare tech incubator has helped raise more than $500 million for new startups. (Photo: Michael d'Estries/MNN)

A region spurred by innovation

For Houston, nicknamed "Space City" for its role in shaping more than 60 years of spaceflight, the Apollo 11 anniversary is helping cast the spotlight on the region's efforts to expand on its legacy of innovation. In addition to its robust energy industry, including more than 100 solar-related firms, the nation's fourth largest and most ethnically diverse city is also positioning itself as a major tech hub with more than 500 digital tech firms.

On Friday, the city formally broke ground on the Ion innovation hub, a 298,000 square foot project designed to be the centerpiece of the new four-mile Innovation Corridor on Main Street.

"We are laying the groundwork to make Houston the next great center for startups and imaginative endeavors in the digital universe," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told a crowd, "and now we have a pivotal physical home for our work on the next frontier."

At Houston’s Texas Medical Center, a sprawling 1,500-acre institution that constitutes the largest medical complex in the world, a 5-year-old tech incubator called TMC Innovation has already supported the launch of 153 startups in the healthcare space. The technologies being raised from ideas to fully funded businesses range from machines capable of 3D printing living tissues to carbon dioxide reutilization platforms for future deep-space exploration.

Moji Karimi, CEO of Cemvita, a startup creating a carbon dioxide utilization platform with applications for deep space exploration, pitches reporters at TMC Innovation.
Moji Karimi, CEO of Cemvita, a startup creating a carbon dioxide utilization platform with applications for deep space exploration, talks to reporters. (Photo: Michael d'Estries/MNN)

According to Lance Black, associate director for TMCx, the spirit of the space program and the drive to redefine what's possible is at the heart of what TMC Innovation is pursuing.

"You're doing something that's never been done before and with no roadmap to follow," he told MNN. "What we're looking for through TMC Innovation are those kinds of technologies. And we throw the term 'disruption' around a lot, but essentially it means that it's going to change the way that we do healthcare in the future. So every time I walk in the door, it's like I’m looking at healthcare in 10,15, 20 years. And it's things that haven't been done before. There’s a lot of pushback, there's a lot of 'You can’t do that!' but as with anything, change is hard."

Bayou & Bottle’s signature Space City Sour, complete with an edible image of an astronaut landing on the moon.
Bayou & Bottle’s signature Space City Sour, complete with an edible image of an astronaut landing on the moon. (Photo: Michael d'Estries/MNN)

Back to the moon

Should NASA receive the necessary funding to send the first female astronauts to the moon, a goal it hopes to achieve by 2024 as part of Project Artemis, Houston and the Johnson Space Center may once again be in the business of making history.

Judging by the last 50 years of transformation that has positioned the region as a leader in energy, healthcare and technology, it's clear Space City is more than ready for a return trip.

"It is the innovative spirit of this city and the people of this city that helped give the world a new perspective," Mayor Turner told reporters. "We are all neighbors and we must all face the future as one."

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.