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Close Encounters Of The CRE Kind: The Fabulous Real Estate Of NASA

The 50th anniversary celebration of Apollo 11 has mostly focused on lunar terrain, but that mission — or any U.S. space mission, even most of the private ones — would never have been possible without real estate on Earth: NASA facilities nationwide.

Liftoff of Apollo 11 from Launch Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida, July 16, 1969.

Currently, NASA has 10 major facilities, which the agency calls "field offices." Some, like the Kennedy Space Center, are known worldwide. Others are less famous, but they all do important work in space and aeronautics science and engineering.

The following is a look at their size and scope, examples of the engineering R&D or testing and operations they do as industrial sites, and information about their economic impact on surrounding communities or states. The moon missions might be a half-century ago, but the impact of the space program is ongoing.


Size: 3,097 acres

Core Competence: Entry systems, computing and IT, aerosciences, astrobiology, artificial intelligence and air traffic management.

Ames took the lead on the Kepler space telescope, which scanned the sky from 2009 to 2018, looking for planets beyond the solar system. Kepler discovered 2,600 such exoplanets.

Ames High End Computing Center provides computer modeling to verify spacecraft designs to improve safety for future missions, seeking to overcome the health risks of space travel from radiation and microgravity, an important consideration for voyages as distant as Mars.

Economic Impact: Ames' total economic impact on the San Francisco Bay Area was $11.8B in 2015, the most recent year for which a study was done, and $13.3B for California.

"Ames continues to be a driver for Silicon Valley," Joint Venture Silicon Valley President and CEO Russell Hancock said. 

"Located in between the Valley's most iconic companies, NASA Ames is a hotbed for startups and a hive of basic research. Government-funded projects spill into the Valley's larger ecosystem, and there's a two-way pipeline between the basic research and the kind of applied research that gets commercialized," Hancock said.


Size: 31.5 acres

Core Competence: Aeronautics testing to develop faster, stronger and more efficient aircraft.

For example, the X-57 Maxwell being developed at Armstrong is the first all-electric X-plane (supersonic aircraft), featuring 14 electric motors and propellers. The goal of the X-57 is a 500% increase in high-speed cruise efficiency, zero in-flight carbon emissions and flight that is much quieter for people on the ground.

The center also manages the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — a highly advanced telescope carried aboard a modified Boeing 747 — in partnership with the German Aerospace Center.

Economic impact: The research center is part of the much larger Edwards Air Force Base, whose impact on the local economy is estimated at $1.49B, including payroll, expenditures and the estimated value of indirect jobs created.


The Propulsion Systems Laboratory at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland

Size: 6,750 acres

Core Competence: The Glenn Research Center has the top space simulation and spacecraft test facilities in the world.

Glenn's B-2 spacecraft propulsion research facility is the only place in the world that can test full-scale, upper-stage launch vehicles and rocket engines under simulated high-altitude conditions. The center is also home to the world's largest vacuum chamber.

Economic impact: Total economic impact on Ohio in 2017 was an estimated $1.48B. More specific to the real estate industry, if Glenn didn't exist, the regional output in the real estate and rental industry would drop by $91.5M.


Size: 1,260 acres

Core Competence: Goddard oversees the building of spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study space.

The facility operates the High Bay Cleanroom, the world's largest cleanroom, measuring 1.3M cubic feet, and its High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center maintains a vast archive of high-energy (X-ray and gamma ray) astronomy data.

The facility oversees Hubble Space Telescope operations and will oversee the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which will complement and extend the discoveries of Hubble. 

Economic Impact: About $1.6B in Maryland in 2018.

"Many of the businesses that contract their services to NASA Goddard have headquarters or a satellite office located in Greenbelt, impacting our tax revenue as well as being a hub for technological innovation," city of Greenbelt Economic Development Coordinator Charise Liggins said.

"NASA Goddard employees, contractors and other key stakeholders patronize Greenbelt restaurants, hotels and shopping centers, contributing to an overall healthy business environment."

JET PROPULSION LABORATORY, La Cañada Flintridge, California

A technician works on the descent stage for the Mars 2020 mission inside JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Mars 2020 is slated to carry NASA's next Mars rover to the Red Planet in July 2020.

Size: 177 acres

Core Competence: The JPL focuses on the robotic exploration of space, including missions to Mercury, Venus, the moon, Mars, the outer planets and other celestial bodies.

Some of the most far-reaching spacecraft that have ever flown — out of the solar system in the case of the Voyager 1 and 2 probes —  were developed and managed by the JPL. Its mandate is vast: solar system exploration, Earth observation, astrophysical research and all the technology development needed to do those tasks. 

Economic Impact: The growth of the JPL and Caltech, which manages the lab for NASA, has been instrumental in the development of this part of Southern California since the 1930s, but their impact goes much further than that, especially via tech transfer.

Caltech generates more inventions and patents per faculty member than any other university in the nation (more than twice that of Stanford or MIT, for instance), according to NASA. Caltech also executes 40 to 50 license and option agreements a year with various partners, from Fortune 500 companies to startups.


Size: 1,700 acres

Core Competence: Manned space flight development. Oversees the U.S. presence on the International Space Station, in cooperation with private space ventures, and is preparing for an eventual return to the moon and expeditions to Mars, provided those voyages maintain their political support.

Economic Impact: Historically, the Johnson Space Center spurred commercial and residential development in Houston, especially during the race to the moon, when thousands of new jobs were created at the facility. Currently, JSC spends about $2.3B/year in Texas. 

The JSC has been a major driver of the tech industry in Houston through business partnerships in both commercial aerospace and various other industries, such as energy and biomedicine. Also, the nonprofit Space Center Houston is a major science and space learning center, generating about $73M in economic impact in greater Houston.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Cape Canaveral, Florida

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, an important part of the public face of NASA, which is visited by about 1.6 million people annually.

Size: 141,829 acres

Core competence: Launching people and machines into space. Other U.S. spaceports have been established in recent years, but the Kennedy Space Center is still the country's primary facility for launching spacecraft.

The KSC has evolved from a government-only facility to a multi-user spaceport in the 21st century, with other entities, such as the United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Boeing and Blue Origin partnering with NASA for launches. That model will likely epitomize the next generation of space exploration.

Economic Impact: Since 1960, the U.S. space program has remade this part of Florida. Currently, as a major spaceport, the KSC has a total impact on the economy of Florida of about $3.9B, including about 23,750 jobs in the state.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex welcomed more than 1.6 million visitors in 2017, of which 82% were from out of state. These tourists represented an injection of $101.6M into Brevard County’s economy. 


Size: 764 acres

Core Competence: Langley works to make improvements to aviation, expand understanding of Earth’s atmosphere and develop technology for space exploration.

For example, Langley is building the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology, or QueSST, which will probably make its first flight in 2021. The goal of the aircraft is to kick off a new generation of quiet supersonic commercial planes that can fly over land (the Concorde, by contrast, was too noisy for anything but transoceanic flights).

Economic Impact: Langley's economic impact in Virginia was estimated to be $1.1B in 2015. A more recent estimate for Joint Base Langley-Eustis, of which Langley is part, put total economic impact generated by the combined facility in 2018 at $2.9B, and the number of indirect jobs created at 13,989.


Earlier this year, a Space Launch System liquid hydrogen tank is positioned in its test stand at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Size: 1,841 acres

Core competence: Marshall is NASA's center for rocketry and spacecraft propulsion R&D and has been so since the early days of the space program. The Saturn V, the largest rocket ever built and the vehicle that took Apollo to the moon, is its crowning achievement.

More recently, the center has been working on the Space Launch System, which will become the most powerful U.S. rocket in the 2020s, designed for human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and into deep space.

Economic Impact: Marshall was part of Huntsville's development from a small town with an agricultural base into a city that is a tech R&D hub, with a focus on rocketry and missile defense.

"Marshall Space Flight Center is an important component of our local economy and has been since the space race," city of Huntsville Business Relations Officer Harrison Diamond said.

Its economic impact on the city is estimated at $3B/year, and it is credited with the creation of 16,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Also, tech transfer is fostered by Marshall's National Space Science and Technology Center, a JV between NASA and seven research universities in Alabama. Its research centers focus on advanced optics, biotechnology, climate science, information technology, material science, propulsion and space science.

STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Hancock County, Mississippi 

Size: 138,000 acres

Core Competency: Stennis is the nation’s primary rocket propulsion test facility, providing services for NASA, the Department of Defense and commercial customers. 

Economic Impact: The area was thinly populated before Stennis was established to test rockets for Apollo. Though still relatively small, Hancock County's population has more than tripled since then, partly because of Stennis. The direct economic impact within a 50-mile radius of the facility is an estimated $176M/year.