HOME WELCOME ARTICLES ARCHIVES BIOGRAPHY FEEDBACK BLOG LINKS Boiler Up…Way Up: A Glance at Purdue’s Contribution to America’s Space Program

American Outlook | 10.30.12
By Alan W. Dowd

With the recent passing of Neil Armstrong—the man fellow astronaut Gene Cernan described as “a world icon, a national hero of unimaginable proportion”—fresh attention has been paid to the place that helped shape and prepare this humble man for his historic mission. Before Armstrong tested rocket planes at speeds of 3,989 miles per hour, before he made that 238,900-mile journey to the moon, before he took man’s first step on another celestial body, he was, in his own words, a “white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer” at Purdue University.

The following is but a glance—and a fleeting one at that—of Purdue’s countless contributions and connections to mankind’s dream of exploring the heavens.

Iron Discipline
Purdue proudly calls itself the “cradle of astronauts,” and rightly so. “Purdue alumni have flown on about 37 percent of all human U.S. space flights” (Purdue).Only MIT and the military academies can claim more astronauts. Purdue notes that 22 of its graduates “have been selected for space travel, including the first and last astronauts to walk on the moon”—Armstrong and Cernan.  

In addition to unfurling Old Glory on the moon, Purdue astronauts have lived on the International Space Station (ISS), visited Russia’s Mir space station, orbited the earth thousands of times, fixed orbiting satellites and telescopes, and flown rockets and spaceships with iconic names like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Eagle, Columbia, Challenger, Endeavour, Atlantis and Discovery. Even casual students of space flight will recognize those last five names as space shuttles. More than 40 of the 135 space shuttle flights had at least one Boilermaker on board (Purdue).

Astronauts, by definition, are exceptional individuals. Indeed, fewer than 500 Americans have been to space. So, to try to highlight the exceptional among the exceptional is an exercise in splitting hairs. Still, some in Purdue’s fraternity of astronauts have set themselves apart. Any discussion of this exclusive fraternity must begin and end with Cmdr. Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong graduated from Purdue with a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1955. What most people don’t know about Armstrong—among the most famous human beings in history—is that he had to put his college career on hold in 1949, when he was called to active duty. As a Navy pilot, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions over Korea. That cockpit experience would serve him well when he began his journey toward the heavens. Armstrong was a test pilot on the X-15 rocket-plane, screaming across the skies above NASA’s Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, at other-worldly speeds. Indeed, Armstrong could fly anything. NASA notes that he “flew more than 200 different models of aircraft, including jets, rockets, helicopters and gliders.”

Armstrong became an astronaut in 1962 and was assigned as command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission. In 1966, Armstrong performed the first docking of two vehicles in space. All of that prepared Armstrong for Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing, in 1969. After returning from his famous stroll on the moon that began with “one small step,” Armstrong, in the typical understated fashion of a Purdue engineer, downplayed the historic achievement, matter-of-factly explaining that “Pilots take no particular joy in walking” (Brinkley).

After interviewing Armstrong a decade ago, historian Douglas Brinkley described the Purdue alum as “immune to fame.” Armstrong “was merely a dutiful pilot and Purdue University-trained engineer who performed his NASA tasks competently. This wasn’t a pose. What mattered to him was old-fashioned public service, iron discipline” (Brinkley).

“The imprint he left on the surface of the moon is matched only by the extraordinary mark he left on ordinary Americans,” President Barack Obama said after Armstrong’s passing. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney offered a poetic remembrance of this most-famous Boilermaker. “The soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots on the moon made permanent impressions on our souls and in our national psyche…I don’t doubt for a second that Neil Armstrong’s spirit is still with us: that unique blend of optimism, humility and the utter confidence that when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.”

Aptly, it was fellow Boilermaker Gene Cernan who offered the eulogy at Armstrong’s memorial. Cernan, a 1956 Purdue graduate, wasn’t with Armstrong when the Eagle landed. But he circled the moon on Apollo 10 in May 1969, in a trial run for Armstrong’s Apollo 11 landing. Years earlier, Cernan flew on Gemini 9 and became the second American to walk in space. Then, in December 1972, Cernan sat in Armstrong’s seat and commanded Apollo 17, America’s last manned mission to the moon. “I no longer belonged solely to the earth,” wrote Cernan, the last man on the moon. “Forever more, I would belong to the universe.”

NASA provides a wealth of details on other notables in Purdue’s astronaut fraternity:

·         John Blaha (M.S. 1966) has logged 161 days in space, serving as the commander on two shuttle missions. Richard Covey (M.S. 1969) flew on the shuttles Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, and served as pilot on the first flight flown after the Challenger disaster. 

·         Michael McCulley (M.S. 1970) helped deploy the Galileo spacecraft on its journey to explore Jupiter from the shuttle Atlantis. In a similar vein, Gregory Harbaugh (B.S. 1978) flew on a special shuttle mission to service the Hubble telescope, participated in the shuttle’s first docking mission with the Russian Space Station Mir and logged more than 18 EVA hours—NASA shorthand for “extra-vehicular activity.”

·         Mark Polansky (B.S. and M.S. 1978) was part of a record-setting mission on ISS, which saw 13 astronauts working aboard the station representing all five ISS partners. Speaking of international missions, David Wolf (B.S. 1978) participated in joint shuttle-Mir missions; spent 128 consecutive days in space, arriving in space on one shuttle and returning to earth three shuttle missions later; and made several space walks, serving as “lead spacewalker” on some missions.

·         Few Americans realize that many shuttle missions were strictly military missions, some of them highly classified. Mark Brown (B.S. 1973) flew several shuttle missions, including some that carried special Department of Defense payloads. Likewise, John Casper (M.S. 1967) carried classified Department of Defense payloads into space aboard Atlantis in 1990. In addition, Jerry Ross (B.S. and M.S. 1970) carried Department of Defense payloads into space as well as “the heaviest civilian satellite ever launched by a shuttle,” according to NASA. “Ross supported the Space Shuttle Program as an astronaut from before the first launch in April 1981 to the last landing in July 2011. He also supported the International Space Station Program from its inception through the completion of assembly of the ISS in 2011” (NASA).

·         Of course, not all of the missions flown by Boilermaker astronauts ended with a safe splashdown or a picture-perfect touchdown. Some ended in tragedy. Gus Grissom (B.S. 1950) was one of the original Mercury astronauts—the seven men immortalized in the film “The Right Stuff”. He flew into space in 1965, serving as command pilot on the first manned Gemini flight. Chosen to serve as command pilot for Apollo 1, Grissom was killed on January 27, 1967, in a fire that destroyed the command module. Roger Chaffee (B.S. 1957) died alongside Grissom, as did Ed White. “The astronauts were the first American spacemen to be killed on the job and ironically, died while on the ground,” The New York Times reported a day later, grimly adding, “They were trapped behind closed hatches.”

Reaching Up and Out
Recent years have seen Purdue continue its enduring partnership with NASA. Indeed, an army of Purdue engineers and scientists have helped design, build and shepherd NASA’s rockets from the blackboard to the stars.

Purdue recently participated in NASA’s Constellation University Institutes Project (CUIP), a consortium of universities that collaborated with NASA to test the rockets designed for the Constellation program, which was canceled by the Obama administration in 2010.

Purdue aerospace engineering students are building an engine for Project Morpheus, NASA’s planned mission to deploy an unmanned lab and robotic equipment on the moon. “The students already have spent a year and a half designing and analyzing their engine and now are building the prototype,” the school reports.

Purdue professors are operating zero-gravity labs, working on plans for a future lunar outpost, developing solutions for space-vehicle assembly, experimenting on new rocket technologies, and overseeing special wind tunnels “capable of running quietly at hypersonic speeds” (Purdue). Tomorrow’s aircraft and weapons—as evidenced by the scramjet technology being tested by the Air Force—will rely on hypersonic rockets that can skip across the upper atmosphere and cruise at speeds in excess of Mach 6, perhaps as fast as Mach 15.

Always with an eye on tomorrow, Purdue reaches out to grade-schoolers interested in space through the Purdue Space Day (PSD) program, an educational outreach effort geared toward students in grades 3-8. Since the program’s launch in 1996, more than 5,400 grade-school students have participated, with some 1,700 Purdue students serving as mentor-instructors. PSD provides “an entire day’s worth of space, science and engineering centered activities…at no cost to the participants” (Purdue). PSD is highlighted by the participation of a Purdue astronaut. The astronauts talk to tomorrow’s astronauts and aeronautical engineers about shuttle missions, Mars missions, lunar landings, robotics and astronomy.

A Special Place
All of this invites an interesting question: How does a land-grant college in the middle of America, conceived as a place “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts,” make such an outsize contribution to America’s space program? To be sure, it has lots to do with the exceptional science and engineering programs at Purdue—programs that have been cultivated by forward-looking policymaking, engaged alumni, path-breaking scholars and visionary partnerships. In the heady days of the space race, for instance, Purdue partnered with the Air Force Academy to bring dozens of cadets to Purdue for accelerated master’s degrees (Wallheimer).

But there’s something more to this picture than great academics. Purdue University is a special place. While so many other American institutions dismiss American exceptionalism as old-fashioned or politically incorrect, while other colleges ban the Star Spangled Banner and expel military recruiters, Purdue University celebrates America as an exceptional and great country.

In 1966, for example, amid the tumult surrounding the Vietnam War, a local newspaper publisher encouraged Purdue University’s marching band director “to get some patriotism into these kids,” as the Purdue Bands website unapologetically explains. The band director responded with these simple but stirring words, which would be “spoken over an arrangement of ‘America the Beautiful’” during the following home football game:

I am an American. That’s the way most of us put it, just matter-of-factly. They are plain words, those four: you could write them on your thumbnail, or sweep them across a bright autumn sky. But remember too, that they are more than just words. They are a way of life. So whenever you speak them, speak them firmly, speak them proudly, speak them gratefully. I am an American!

The band director figured it was a one-time deal. But in response to strong popular demand, and after the tribute was presented before a national TV audience during the 1967 Rose Bowl, “I Am an American” became a permanent pregame football tradition at Purdue University.

More than four decades later, Purdue fans and visiting fans alike are invited to read the words of “I Am an America” during the pregame festivities of every home game. When the crowd roars those last four words, it’s a reminder that what unites us is bigger than what divides us—something the men and women of Purdue’s astronaut fraternity know from firsthand experience.

Strong Words
Perhaps that helps explain why Armstrong and Cernan expressed such deep concern about the end of the space shuttle program in 2011 and consequent end of America’s manned spaceflight program.

Each shuttle was built for 100 missions. Discovery, the oldest of the now-retired shuttles, flew just 39. It was the loss of Columbia that altered NASA’s plans to fly shuttles into the 2020s. As the human and economic costs of manned space flight increased, public interest and public support decreased—and so did funding. A gap then emerged between the end of the shuttle and the beginning of its successor program. Under the Bush administration’s plan, that gap had a defined endpoint of 2015 (Dale). The Bush administration proposed phasing out the shuttle to divert resources to the Constellation program, which would use the best of the shuttle and Apollo programs to carry Americans beyond low-earth orbit.

Joined by fellow Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, Armstrong and Cernan wrote an open letter in 2010 expressing strong support for continuing Constellation as planned. Constellation “was endorsed by two presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses,” they wrote. “To be without carriage to low-earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future,” the Apollo trio added, “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature” (Armstrong, Cernan and Lovell).

But President Obama canceled Constellation and flat-lined NASA spending. NASA funding was just $17.8 billion in 2012, and the White House requested less for 2013. Today, NASA outlays amount to less than 0.5 percent of federal spending. By way of comparison, in the early 1960s, NASA accounted for about 1.1 percent of federal spending. The result: The greatest spacefaring power on earth is stuck on earth, and NASA is paying Russia $753 million to deliver Americans to and from ISS.

Putting on a brave face, NASA chief Charles Bolden said Washington’s spending plan for NASA “requires us to live within our means,” which is what Americans expect of their government. It’s just that the Obama administration’s willingness to starve NASA has stood in such stark contrast to its eagerness to pour unprecedented sums into virtually every other government program. 

In 2011, the normally-reserved Armstrong openly criticized Washington for a “substantial erosion of the United States’ historically highly regarded space industrial base” (Houston Chronicle).“The leadership enthusiastically assured the American people that the agency was embarking on an exciting new age of discovery in the cosmos,” Armstrong said. “But the realities of the termination of the shuttle program, the cancellation of existing rocket launcher and spacecraft programs, the layoffs of thousands of aerospace workers and the outlook for American space activity throughout the next decade were difficult to reconcile with the agency assertions” (Houston Chronicle). Given that he had taken pains to stay out of the spotlight for decades, Armstrong’s words spoke volumes.

Yesterday and Tomorrow
“I think we’ll always be in space, but it will take us longer to do the new things than the advocates would like, and in some cases it will take external factors or forces which we can’t control,” Armstrong said—external factors like threats from some rising power or the recognition that, in President Kennedy’s words, “no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”

After all that Purdue’s sons and daughters have accomplished and sacrificed in space, it’s troubling that Kennedy’s words from September 1962, when Russian rockets ruled the heavens, are true again. “To be sure, we are behind, and will be behind for some time in manned flight,” he conceded. But Kennedy knew the space race was far from over, and he knew America could close the gap—and would one day take the lead. “We do not intend to stay behind,” he promised.

Purdue University helped America keep that promise in the closing decades of the 20thcentury—and if America asks, Purdue will do so again in the 21stcentury.


Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Eugene Cernan, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36470363/ns/nightly_news#.UG77rk2HJ_U.

Associated Press, “Three Apollo Astronauts Die in Fire; Grissom, White, Chaffee Caught in Capsule During a Test on Pad,” January 27, 1967.

Douglas Brinkley, “The Neil Armstrong You Didn’t Know,” Newsweek, September 3, 2012.

Houston Chronicle, “Former astronaut Neil Armstrong faults Obama administration’s space plan,” September 22, 2011.

John Kennedy, Remarks in Houston, Texas, September 12, 1962.

Tariq Malik, “NASA to fly astronauts on Russian spaceships at nearly $63 million per seat,”
SPACE.com, March 14, 2011.

NASA, http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/armstrong-na.html.

NASA, http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/astrobio_former.html.

NASA, http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/astrobio_mgmt.html.

Purdue Bands, “I Am an American,” http://www.purdue.edu/bands/aamb/iamanamericanbg.html.

Purdue University, http://www.purdue.edu/space/history.html.

Purdue University, “BTN's ‘Impact’ to feature Purdue rocket research tonight,” January 24, 2012, http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/purduetoday/general/2012/120124_BTN-Impact3.html.

Purdue University, https://news.uns.purdue.edu/x/2008a/080310AndersonJ2X.html.

Purdue University, http://www.purdue.edu/space/research.html.

Purdue University, https://engineering.purdue.edu/PurdueSpaceDay/about_psd/aboutspaceday.html.

Purdue University, https://engineering.purdue.edu/PurdueSpaceDay/about_psd/pastspacedays.html.

Brian Wallheimer, “Purdue’s next step,” Lafayette Journal Courier, Oct 21, 2007.

Shana Dale, Remarks at NASA, February 4, 2008.