Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who spent 10 of his seasons playing for the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome, was torn ahead of the vote. “I’m sure economics have a lot to do with it,” Moon said. “But the historical importance of it is something you want to take a look at too, no question about it. The question is, ‘With Reliant Stadium sitting right next door, what do you keep it for?’”
In between opening night and this week’s vote, the Dome hosted everything from baseball, bullfights, and professional football to a fabled college basketball game between UCLA and the University of Houston, the first game of its kind to be seen on national television. Elvis, Evel Knievel, Muhammad Ali, and Billy Graham all performed to their faithful. In 1973, the world tuned into to watch the legendary Battle of Sexes tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King.
The Supremes were the first act to perform in the Astrodome when they, tellingly enough, opened for Judy Garland before a sold-out crowd. The Dome contained an entire Robert Altman film and not nearly enough displaced citizens of New Orleans, tens of thousands of whom called the Dome home after Hurricane Katrina. By then, all of the Astrodome’s teams had moved out.
“When you’re in the present, you cannot judge what will become a wonder of the world,” astrophysicist and chief dome-dweller at the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson told me. “That’s to be judged by generations that follow. Here we are, ready to level the Astrodome, and the Pyramids are still standing.”
The Dome was an American innovation. Largely credited as the vision of the late Roy Hofheinz (immortalized locally as “The Judge”), a former Houston mayor, campaign advisor to Lyndon Johnson in the 1940s, and the father of professional baseball in Houston, the Astrodome was the world’s first model for domed stadiums. It inspired countless knock-offs, built everywhere from Seattle to Osaka and from New Orleans to New Zealand. Upon opening, it sported a sophisticated air-conditioning system, luxury boxes, and a $2 million scoreboard that was four stories high and had programmable animation—all features never before seen in a stadium. The complex also launched a professional sports team (the Houston Astros), a signature terrain (AstroTurf), and a landmark theme park (AstroWorld).
The Astrodome was nicknamed the “Can-Do Cathedral,” and for good reason: Not only would it be completed six months early, but when problems emerged, solutions were quick in coming. When the project initially went over budget, Hofheinz secured extra funding by promising local black leaders that the venue would be fully integrated. When glare from the ceiling’s Lucite panels interfered with outfielders tracking down flyballs, the windows were painted. When the paint killed the Bermuda grass, the solution was to create AstroTurf, a surface that was cleaned during games by groundskeepers called Earthmen, who dressed in space costumes and wielded vacuum cleaners.