Lunar legend

Purdue alumni play key roles in U.S. space program

Posted on Jul 02 2019 in General, Profile
Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing mission, poses for his official portrait in his space suit.


Fifty years ago this month, a man on the moon joined the man in the moon, pressing a human footprint onto the grainy gray lunar surface for the first time in history.

Neil Armstrong’s July 20, 1969 milestone step (he was soon accompanied by fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin) came 6½ hours after the Apollo 11 lunar module, Eagle, touched down in the not-so-damp Sea of Tranquility – prompting Armstrong’s memorable radio announcement: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” 

Armstrong and Aldrin fulfilled the dream of President John F. Kennedy, who declared in 1961 that America should commit itself to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Their monumental accomplishment inspired (and inspires) not only national pride, but state and collegiate pride in Indiana. Armstrong was a 1955 graduate of Purdue University who never forgot his alma mater. 

“Neil did not sign autographs after he found them being sold online for thousands of dollars,” says space historian John Norberg, a former Purdue director of communications for development. “But on campus, he stopped and posed for photos with anyone who asked.”

The contribution of Purdue alumni to the U.S. space program is immeasurable. Norberg, author of the recently released “Ever True: 150 Years of Giant Leaps at Purdue University,” notes that two dozen Purdue graduates, including Armstrong, have become NASA astronauts, and a 25th is in training. Hundreds of others have worked in the space industry, among them the first female commercial astronaut, Beth Moses, who flew aboard a Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceplane in February. 

But the Purdue presence experienced its most magic and tragic moments in the moonbound Apollo program. Behind Armstrong’s triumphant tread was the star-crossed preflight test of Apollo 1, which claimed the lives of three astronauts, including Purdue graduates Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee. 

Twelve men walked on the moon, the last – Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan – in 1972. He, too, earned his bachelor’s degree from Purdue.

BRIAN D. SMITH is a freelance journalist from Greenwood.


Where to go to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing

Whether you prefer small steps or giant leaps, you can celebrate the golden anniversary of the first moon landing this month without ever leaving Earth’s atmosphere.

Purdue University will host a July 18 talk by NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz titled “‘Go or No-Go’: The Untold Story of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing.” Kranz is best known as the “Failure is not an option” character played by Ed Harris in the movie “Apollo 13” (although the real Kranz never said it). A daylong slate of campus happenings will mark the July 20 anniversary, including a display of Purdue grad Neil Armstrong’s personal papers:

Elsewhere on July 20, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis will hold an Apollo 50th Anniversary Celebration, and the Ferdinand (Ind.) Branch Library will welcome volunteer NASA Solar System Ambassador Amanda Scurry to its Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Party.