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Purdue’s key role in the race to space


Fall 2018 | By David Ching. Photo by NASA.


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Michael G. Smith’s “History of the Space Age” course has always had a local flavor thanks to Purdue’s many ties to space exploration.

That will be especially true over the next academic year because of its special connection to Purdue's most famous alumnus, Boilermaker astronaut Neil Armstrong, whose words inspired the “Giant Leaps” theme the University is employing for its 150th anniversary.

“I’m centering my 2018 and 2019 courses on the Apollo 11 anniversary coming up,” the professor of history said, referencing the 50 years that will have passed since July 20, 1969, when Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind” and became the first human to walk on the moon.

“History of the Space Age” — which Smith will teach again in the spring, following a fall undergraduate seminar in which students will research and write magazine-length articles on space exploration — traces the roots of the space race from the early 20th century through the Cold War to entrepreneurial efforts like SpaceX that drive space exploration today.

Even in typical years that Smith teaches the course, he makes it a regular point to feature Purdue alumni who contributed to space exploration in ways both big and small. With 24 astronauts to Purdue's credit, an alum has represented the University in space on more than a third of all human spaceflights, but the connection does not include astronauts alone.

“We don’t know a lot about how Purdue engineers have informed the space program,” Smith said. “We know about our astronauts, but even then it’s more popular, narrative history rather than the hard-hitting interpretive history. So I’m teaching more about the engineers and astronauts as I discover in my research work what Purdue gave to the space program, and the students really like that.”

Some students even contribute to Smith’s course materials. The history professor is collaborating with them on a digital textbook, with engineering students condensing complex processes into layperson’s terms and history students supplying context for important events.

For instance, Max Campbell (B.A. 2014, history, M.A. 2016, history) is writing a section on Purdue’s noteworthy appearance in the 1967 Rose Bowl. Not only did Purdue’s football team win in its first Rose Bowl appearance, but Boilermaker astronauts Armstrong, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Eugene Cernan, and Jerry Ross also were present. Weeks later, Apollo 1’s Grissom and Chaffee, along with the team’s third member, Ed White, were killed in a fire during a prelaunch test.

“It’s this unique moment in Purdue and space history, almost like a departure from the early Mercury and Gemini programs into the moon program, basically,” said Campbell, who also designed the online textbook’s digital forum. “It’s kind of this branching-off point. There are a lot of things that started to happen after that.”

Since Smith began teaching the course in 1996, its conclusion has changed. In the early days, he ended with the proposed missile defense initiative known as “Star Wars” in the 1980s. Later, he focused on NASA’s Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. Most recently it has been the commercial efforts of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and smaller DIY ventures — bringing students up to the present in a subject whose history continues to be written.

“It changes all the time,” Smith said. “What’s interesting is that the students tend to know a lot more about the most recent events than I do. So that’s nice. It creates a conversation. I’ve learned more from them in those final weeks of class because they keep up better with current events.”