On its 50th anniversary the Astrodome’s demise is a reflection of us

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The space-age promise of the Astrodome never came to pass, but that dream we let die should be recognized the week of the stadium’s 50-year anniversary.

By Andrew Pridgen

The Astrodome, baseball’s first domed stadium, opened Friday, April 9, 1965 to 47,879 spectators including Stonewall, Texas native and Oval Office dweller Lyndon B. Johnson. They watched in hermetically sealed, 72-degree comfort as the newly minted hometown Astros (name changed from the Colt .45s to honor Houston’s aerospace industry) defeated the Yankees 2-1 in an exhibition game.

Mickey Mantle, who collected the first-ever indoor home run that day, was not underwhelmed; that said a lot for a man who wasn’t wowed by much unless it had a pop top: “It reminds me of what I imagine my first ride would be like in a flying saucer,” Mantle said after the first game.

The structure, the one Billy Graham claimed was the 8th Wonder of the World, was a half a mile in circumference and twice as big as any stadium enclosure—ever and since.

It was innovation on top of innovation. Pop-ups were lost in the transparent ceiling, so it was painted over. The grass died on the field, so AstroTurf was invented. By 1966, the stadium was the third-most visited man-made structure in the US just behind the Golden Gate Bridge and Mt. Rushmore.

Houston, the festering Texas town risen from marshes, swamp and prairie—extending its borders as long as daylight would allow—was exploding with ideas. Science, computers, engineering the answer. Heads tilted skyward with only a hand to block the rays of the sun and not much else to keep eager Texans from touching it.

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It was a time of risk-taking. Innovation. Technology and bipartisanship keyed this race, this drive to take the next step, to shed light in the dark. A slide rule and black-rimmed glasses were the iconography.

We were hell-bent on success and achievement and not in an apologetic way, not in an ironic way.

The Astrodome was the terrestrial manifestation of this hubris. Elvis sold it out several times. Evel Knievel broke records and shattered bones there. Billie Jean King showed she was tougher, faster and stronger than Bobby Riggs under its roof and Nolan Ryan threw a no-hitter ‘neath the daytime lights.

Within four years of its opening the Astrodome, as the symbol of innovation’s epicenter, assured us the moon landing was merely the first step in our collective journey into the vast beyond.

Why then does the Astrodome stand today discarded, like a Frisbee tossed in some brush? Across the way, like so many stadia that has been erected this century, is NRG Stadium: a nondescript shoebox made of pipe cleaners built in 2002 that is neither offensive nor impressive. Like the Ikea kitchen your buddy just put in, it’s new. It’s clean. It’s unimaginative and devoid of character or aspiration.

Today, we reach our arms out as far as they can go, not to take capture the world and beyond at the end of our fingertips, but to turn the lens back toward us to snap a picture of our own familiar face.

To a home field, to a team, across this country there wasn’t perfection but there was personality: The movie-theater-on-a-Sunday cool of the Astrodome giving Texas residents refuge from bull testicle-sized mosquitoes. The swirling bay winds rustling up fry paper wrappers like a centrifuge in San Francisco. The set of Queens-based brothers in their wife-beaters spraying hot dog spittle arguing over who’s gonna do the engine overhaul and who’s got brake work tomorrow at the shop in the upper-deck at Shea. The plasticky Toys “R” Us Eau Du Homerdome of Minnesota, giving patrons a sensation they were cruising at altitude in a giant coach cabin en route to another sub-.500 season.

The look, feel, dress and smells were all different. Even if it wasn’t your home field, you knew you were in someone’s home.

In their place, interchangeable if not forgettable ballparks. On a recent trip to the new Citi Field in Flushing Meadows, I was reminded of another recent trip to Target Field in Minneapolis, which both reminded me of recent games at AT&T Park in San Francisco which all were reminiscent of Minute Maid Park in Houston.

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The pleasant new ball parks’ bland homogeneousness is a reflection of us and our new, limited aspirations. We’ve turned insular and cast our gaze from beyond the stars to down at our palms.

The promise of Disney’s Tomorrowland, all concrete domes and spinning, reaching spires, has knelt to the small black-screened rectangle. We’ve gone from beyond collective imagination to the deep recesses of the individual Id. Our eyes can’t focus if it’s not directly in front of us. We are annoyed by abstraction. We cannot be trifled with those who disagree because we can too easily locate others who find our trifles amusing. Our neighbors are hidden in their homes. They’ve become virtual strangers as we interact, virtually, to more like-minded across the globe.

Today, we reach our arms out as far as they can go, not to take capture the world and beyond at the end of our fingertips, but to turn the lens back toward us to snap a picture of our own familiar face.

The age of innovation that began a half-century ago with the opening of the Astrodome was about reaching beyond individual limits, seeing how far we could, together, go. Designing a stadium to resemble a giant spaceship in hopes we’d one day figure out a way to put rocket boosters underneath it and let re-animated Mickey Mantle hit the first-ever home run in outer space.

Surely that notion wasn’t far from the hopes of the stadium’s first 47,000 attendees 50 years ago. I bet to a person not one took a picture of himself sitting there, but all took photos of the wonder before them.

On its 50th birthday, the Astrodome still stands, barely. For now, it has been spared the wrecking ball. More than likely, it will be rubble within a decade’s time. Some kind of housing-office-retail development with marketable green spaces and a Metrorail station. On its footprint, a plaque in the shape of a flying saucer to commemorate what was, what could have been.

The future we gave up on.

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