While the thought of dive bars usually conjures up images of neighborhood locals playing darts or quaffing drafts while watching a game, the storied Outpost Tavern in Houston was once a second home to a more cerebral crew.
During the heyday of the now-shuttered bar, you might have found famed Apollo 11 crew members Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin hanging out, discussing the surface of the moon over a cold brew. As the dive of choice for the world’s most accomplished astronauts and engineers, the Outpost Tavern played a special part in the history of the United States’ exploration of the final frontier.
In its first incarnation, the building was a World War II barracks for pilots stationed at Houston’s Ellington Field. In 1965, it was moved to a vacant lot close to NASA’s Johnson Space Center where it became a barbecue shack known as Fort Terry’s Universal Joint, or “U-Joint” for short.
The U-Joint would become the go-to spot for NASA employees for hosting its “splashdown” parties, celebratory events attended by astronauts and mission operators after successful moon missions.
In 1980, Gene Ross purchased the barbecue shack and rechristened it as the Outpost Tavern. The splashdown traditions continued unabated. The tavern became so popular with NASA employees that it was referred to as “Building 99,” a place where work could continue, but with a beer in hand.
”As the shuttle program started to ramp up in the early 1980’s, more and more people came into the Outpost,” Roger Mitchell, a NASA employee. told The New York Times. ”It kind of became the astronaut hangout.”
Over the years, the bar became a makeshift museum of space memorabilia attracting tourists from around the world. Photos of astronauts, shuttle crews, rocket launches, and even a flight suit lined its walls and ceiling.
Although splashdown and retirement parties were the norm at the Outpost, it also would become the gathering place during sadder times. After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, the Outpost mourned with its patrons by holding an informal wake.
During the three decades it was open, the tavern had its fair share of ups and downs. In 2000, the Outpost was closed after its grill was deemed unsafe by the city’s fire marshal. Following a community-driven effort that included a “Save the Outpost” campaign, the bar raised enough funding to reopen with a facelift and a new grill.
The Outpost Tavern finally closed for good in January 2010 and, months later, was destroyed by a fire. Stephanie Foster, the owner at the time of the bar’s closing, said she was able to save most of the memorabilia before the fire and has kept the bar’s licenses “just in case.”
“It’s one of these places, I’ve owned other businesses and it’s almost like somebody died and I just keep waiting to see them again,” Foster told The Houston Chronicle. “I still miss it to this day.”
The actual bar was featured in the Clint Eastwood movie “Space Cowboys” and in Disney’s “RocketMan.” And this past year a dramatized recreation was featured in the Apple TV+ astronaut series “For All Mankind.” There’s even a Facebook group made up of former patrons who regularly post updates and old photos from the Outpost.
While today the site is a vacant lot, the Outpost Tavern’s memory and historical significance live on in the memories of people who fondly recall its legacy in the stars.