Our Role in the History of Spaceflight
As the space shuttle Atlantis blasts off for the last time, Purdue continues to look to the future of space exploration with a sense of excitement at the same time we celebrate the past and the crucial role Purdue and its alumni have played.
On July 20, 1969, Purdue alumnus Neil Armstrong took his famous "small step" into history as the first human to set foot on the moon. And in 1972, Eugene Cernan, another Purdue alumnus, became the last to step on the lunar surface.
Our proud legacy carried forward into the age of the shuttle. Purdue has produced 23 astronauts who have been chosen for space flight, and Boilermakers have flown on 47 space shuttle missions, which is about 35 percent of all shuttle flights since 1981. Alumnus Jerry Ross was the first human to fly on seven missions orbiting the Earth, making nine spacewalks.
But the astronauts aren't the only Purdue link to outer space; many Purdue professors and their students have been actively involved in research that furthers our reach in space while improving lives on Earth.
NASA's final shuttle launch represents the end of a remarkable program.
Over three decades and 135 missions, shuttles have played a key role in launching and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope and in building and enhancing the International Space Station. Shuttles have been used to carry out more than 2,000 experiments in a broad range of engineering and scientific disciplines. Astronauts on shuttle flights gathered data for the first comprehensive map of the Earth's topography and shot high-resolution images of features as diverse as active volcanoes and urban sprawl.
Purdue has played a significant role in the space shuttle program, and, although the future of space exploration is uncertain, Purdue will continue be a part of it. There is still much to see and much to learn.
In furthering the exploration of our cosmic neighborhood and beyond, the shuttle, at the same time, has dared us to dream big dreams and achieve them. It has increased our scientific understanding of our planet, our galaxy, our universe - and, perhaps most importantly, ourselves.
Some Purdue air and space history:
- Purdue has been called the "cradle of astronauts" for good reason. Twenty-two Purdue graduates have been selected for space travel, including the first and last astronauts to walk on the moon, and two of the six American astronauts who have served on board Mir, the Russian space station. Purdue alumni have flown on about 37 percent of all human U.S. space flights. More than 40 space shuttle flights have had Purdue alumni on board. Many other Purdue graduates work for NASA and in the space industry. Purdue alumnus Gregory Harbaugh, a veteran of four space flights, flew on the second Hubble servicing mission in 1997 and has logged more than 18 EVA hours. He also was backup EVA crewman working in mission control during the first Hubble servicing mission.
- Before the word "astronaut" was commonly accepted and used in the English language, four future "astronauts" walked the sidewalks and paths of Purdue heading to their engineering classes: Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan and Roger Chaffee. Grissom was one of America's first seven astronauts; Armstrong and Cernan were the first and last people, respectively, to step foot on the moon; and Chaffee was a crew member of what was designated as the first Apollo mission.
- William J. O'Neil, a 1961 graduate who received an honorary doctorate for his work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was manager of the Galileo project that sent a spacecraft to Jupiter and its moons in 1995. He also had been a major player in missions to the moon and Mars. He was named an Aviation Week & Space Technology laureate for Project Galileo's delivery to Jupiter and received several NASA awards, including the NASA Group Achievement Award and an Outstanding Leadership Medal for his work as navigation chief of the Viking Project – the first U.S. mission to Mars.
- Purdue graduate Cliff Turpin helped the Wright brothers redesign their engine and controls starting in 1908. Orville Wright taught him to fly and he traveled the nation as part of the Wright Flight Exhibition Team. A Purdue graduate taught Billy Mitchell to fly. Mitchell commanded all U.S. air combat units in France during World War I. Cliff Turpin taught Henry "Hap" Arnold to fly. Arnold was commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II.