Texas’ contributions to space research and exploration

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing approaching, Texas experts are reflecting on the Lone Star State’s connections to this moment in history. 

Many remember President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962 about the goal to send someone to the moon. 

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? 

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” 

President John F. Kennedy, 1962

When President Lyndon B. Johnson served in the U.S. Senate, he also championed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston has led the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab projects and currently serves as a home of mission control, the Orion Multi-purpose crew vehicle and other projects. 

The U.S. Postal Service celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 on Friday with two Forever Stamps. There were also segments aired on NASA TV and on NASA’s website from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, including the newly-restored Apollo Mission Control Operations Room and the official visitor’s center, Space Center Houston. 

The Apollo 11 crew completed its mission and landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. UT Austin has several alumni and professors tied to Apollo Missions, including Alan Bean, class of 1955, who was the fourth man to walk on the moon as part of Apollo 12. Eleven of the university’s alumni have gone to space.

Astronauts left reflectors on the moon, which have allowed astronomers at McDonald Observatory direct laser beams at them to measure the distance to the moon.

“That allows us to determine the orbit to the moon really accurately and to study issues like gravity and whether the moon as a solid core and liquid core,” Director Dr. Taft Armandroff said.

This work has real-world applications, he said.

“This has evolved into the kind of coordinate systems that we use for cellular phone positioning, map making and for measuring things like ocean heights and the impact of floods here in Texas.

Dr. Humboldt Mandell, who graduated from UT Austin in 1957 and worked on Mars exploration programs with NASA, is a research fellow at the Center for Space Research with the university.

“It seems to be almost like yesterday in some respects,” he said about the moon landing.

Mandall was inside control room during the extra-vehicular activity (EVA).

“Everyone wanted to be in the control room,” he said. “We had 40,000 people or something who wanted to be in the control room and they had a lottery. I had one of these lottery things and got into the control room.”

He remembers having the chance to be next to Dr. Wernher Von Braun, who is known for his role in rocket development and space exploration. Mandell’s focus is Mars exploration and he’s currently working with summer interns at the Center for Space Research on the topic.

“It’s a very important destination geopolitically,” he said. “We as a nation are very well equipped to be the first there if we don’t get sidetracked with the moon. I’m not a fan of the current plan to go back to the moon because it just detracts time and resources from getting to Mars, which is the real prize.”

Dr. Wallace Fowler, director emeritus for the Texas Space Grant Consortium, has been with the university since 1965.

“There are two or three faculty members who are working on orbital debris,” he said. “That’s a huge problem right now because there’s a lot of stuff up there that you don’t want to have it hit you.”

“With every mission that goes up and when something shuts down, that becomes a piece of debris,” he added. “What do we do with it?”

Dr. Byron Tapley, who helped direct the center since it was established in 1981, was also the principal investigator on the Grace (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) Mission. The satellite mission provided insights by tracking water, ice and the solid Earth.

Mandell hopes the work that’s taking place across Texas with students in aerospace engineering can continue to drive progress in space research. He also hopes Texans interested in pursuing a career in this field can be inspired by the work that’s taking place in the Lone Star State.

“I tell them, you’ll never get rich so you have to decide that right upfront,” he said. “But you’ll have the greatest career you can possibly have.”

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