Purdue astronauts took on final frontier

Before they were superheroes of the Space Age, they were students at Purdue.

Virgil “Gus” Grissom, native of Mitchell in Lawrence County, Purdue Class of 1950, was one of seven astronauts selected by NASA for Project Mercury, the United States’ first man-in-space program.

Roger Chaffee, Class of ’57, helped develop flight control communications and instrumentation systems for the Apollo program.

Neil Armstrong, Class of ’55, served as spacecraft commander for Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission.

Eugene Cernan, Class of ’56, flew to the moon twice. As commander of Apollo 17 in 1972, he’s the last man to have left his footprints there.

“The word astronaut was not common in the English language in the early 1950s when these guys were all on campus,” notes aviation historian John Norberg, who has written and spoken extensively about Purdue’s alumni astronauts. “It was an obscure word in science fiction then.”

But it wasn’t obscure for long, thanks in large part to Purdue’s role — second only to MIT — in educating astronauts for NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Consider:

  • Purdue alumni have flown on 37 percent of all human U.S. space flights.
  • More than 40 space shuttle flights have had Purdue alumni on board.
  • Two Purdue grads, including Indianapolis native David A. Wolf, were among the six American astronauts who have served on board Mir, the Russian space station.

By far the most famous Purdue astronauts have been Grissom and Armstrong, Grissom because of his pioneering achievements and tragic death and Armstrong because he was the first man to walk on the moon.

As part of Project Mercury in 1961, Grissom piloted the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft on a 15-minute suborbital flight, becoming the second American in space. Four years later, he made history at the helm of Gemini 3, which flew nearly 81,000 miles completing three orbits of the earth.

Dubbed the coolest heads in the business, Grissom, Chaffee and Edward White were picked for the first stage of Apollo – the project to send man to the moon. Disaster intervened on January 27, 1967, when a flash fire broke out inside the command module during a launch pad test, killing them instantly. They were the first fatalities of the U.S. space program.

To memorialize Indiana’s hero, the Indiana General Assembly established the Virgil I. Grissom Memorial and Museum at Spring Mill State Park, near Grissom’s hometown, featuring photos, artifacts and stories from his life, all aimed at inspiring the youngest Hoosiers.

An irony of the tragedy was that it expedited the triumph of the Apollo program. “Because the accident happened on the ground, instead of in space, investigators could determine what areas needed the most attention to ensure the success of future missions,” observes Grissom biographer Ray E. Boomhower.

Armstrong would be the one to fulfill the dreams of the nation. With more than half a billion people watching on television on July 20, 1969, he climbed down a ladder from the Apollo 11 spacecraft and stepped onto the moon, declaring, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Grissom and Chaffee both have halls named in their memory at their alma mater. In 2007, Purdue dedicated a new home for its engineering program in Armstrong’s honor. The Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering houses state-of-the-art equipment and a zero-gravity lab that recreates the weightlessness and microgravity of space, a technological advantage certain to attract the next generation of space heroes to West Lafayette.

Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at [email protected].