Auburn astronaut, professors put historic NASA launch in perspective

Published: June 04, 2020
Font Size

Article body

For eons, humankind has gazed skyward with wonderment and curiosity, pondering the possibilities of exploring the heavens.

That innate desire continued on Saturday, May 30, when NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken made a historic flight that has reinvigorated the realm of space travel. Strapped into their Dragon capsule and powered by a Falcon 9 rocket, the astronauts—known as Crew Dragon—took off from the Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, chasing history.

Hurley and Behnken broke through the earth’s atmosphere into orbit, hitting speeds of 17,500 miles per hour in the SpaceX operation known as “Demo-2.” On Sunday, May 31, they successfully docked with the International Space Station and will remain there as part of the Expedition 63 crew for an undetermined span that could range from five weeks to four months.

For one of Auburn’s six astronauts and a pair of professors with ties to NASA, the launch was epic not only because of its historical significance as an advancement of the U.S. space program, but also because of its role as a possible precursor for a return trip to the moon, as well as a boon for the future of science education.

“I was really excited to see a launch from Kennedy Space Center,” said former NASA astronaut and 1977 Auburn mechanical engineering alumna Jan Davis, who logged more than 28 days in space. “The launch pad SpaceX used is actually the same location from where I used to launch, and SpaceX built a totally new launch pad. It’s interesting to see the evolution and all the different things happening at Kennedy Space Center. It’s kind of a new day, and it’s gratifying to see the evolution of the space program.”

It marked the first time humans had ever flown aboard a SpaceX vehicle—which had successfully delivered multiple cargo payloads to space—and the mission was the first to carry astronauts to space from an American launch site since the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011. SpaceX is the first commercially owned and operated American crew spacecraft, and once the mission is complete, the launch vehicle will be certified for operational use for regular human space transport.

Crew Dragon’s mission is exploratory and will be used to collect data about how the spacecraft handled the launch, orbit and return to earth as a foundation for future missions. SpaceX executives—led by its founder, billionaire Elon Musk—hope it signifies the dawn of a new age of space exploration and travel, and those who know the space program best are optimistic about this collaboration.

“The government is building the Space Launch System that will take people back to the moon, and I think we should always have that government initial development of the very difficult, expensive and risky things,” said Davis, who was part of the 1987 NASA Group and worked for NASA before becoming an astronaut. “Spacecraft have been developed by private companies before, with considerable oversight by NASA and the government, but not to the extent of a rocket that will carry people. International cooperation and the involvement of commercial companies is essential to expanding our space program and our capabilities of going into space.”

For Auburn Associate Professor of History Monique Laney, the successful launch shows great progress in the post-Space Shuttle development of the country’s space programs, especially in eliminating a growing dependence on Russia in recent years to transport astronauts to space.

“It’s fantastic news that we were able to do that again after nine years,” said Laney, who teaches courses on space exploration. “It’s terrific that we’re no longer having to rely on another country for access to space. On one hand, international collaboration is very important for space exploration and will be moving forward, but at the same time, being so reliant on a country you might have tensions with is probably not that great.”

Laney has received two fellowships at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and two sponsored by NASA and won the 2015 Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award from the American Astronautical Society, as well as the 2016 Gardner-Lasser Aerospace History Literature Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She said Saturday’s launch was the culmination of decades of private sector involvement in the country’s space program.

“This is not new that we have private industry involved in space exploration,” said Laney, who also has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant for her research. “It goes back to the ’60s, actually. Under President Reagan, it really ramped up more, and each successive president all put more things in place in order to make this happen.”

Laney said the SpaceX mission is an important historical highlight for the private sector, which has helped propel and carry cargo payloads to space for decades. The launch is part of a plan for a future expansion of space exploration, with Boeing planning on its own launch next year and joining SpaceX with its own plans of producing a rocket capable of returning American astronauts to the moon and eventually, Mars.

“It makes it much more likely that we will go back to the moon, but I don’t know what it says further than that,” said Laney, who earned a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Kansas in 2009. “It shows that we can, if we do it right, rely on private industry. If we can create these public-private relationships, that’s probably the best way forward. You get the best of both sides.”

The world will keep a watchful eye on the SpaceX crew’s return trip to earth later this summer. Davis—a veteran of space flights STS-47, STS-60 and STS-85 in 1992, 1994 and 1997, respectively—said she is confident Hurley and Behnken will be successful in that endeavor as well.

“I feel confident they’ve done the testing and test flights they need to do to complete the mission safely,” said Davis, a member of both the Alabama Aviation and Alabama Engineering Halls of Fame. “SpaceX has flown the Dragon quite a bit for cargo, so those systems have been tested. The challenge will be—as it usually is for a capsule like that—making sure the ablation system works and there are no gaps that allow heat to break through, and since they’re landing in water, you want to make sure they’re not out there in the water too terribly long.

“Space is difficult, and you just never know. You have to be vigilant and make sure all the systems work throughout the mission.”

Octavia Tripp, an associate professor of curriculum and teaching in Auburn’s College of Education, spent seven years traveling the country to teach space exploration as an aerospace education specialist for NASA's Aerospace Education Services Program in the 1990s. A grade-school science teacher in Georgia in the 1980s, Tripp expects Saturday’s launch to spark a renewed interest in science, technology and math, or STEM, for children across the nation.

“I think SpaceX is going to ignite curiosity in children and make them want to do STEM-related activities,” said Tripp, whose main focus is on elementary education. “Kids are excited about space, and I think this is going to be exciting for them and will push them in the realm of STEM. We’re going to find them asking questions and wanting to know more.”

Tripp said the historic mission likely could inspire children to become future astronauts.

“I think it’s going to provide us our next generation of explorers,” said Tripp, who served as program coordinator for NASA’s Urban and Rural Community Enrichment Program for grades K-8 from 1999-2002. “With them being able to see a rocket take off and know there are people in the capsule above it, they’re going to have questions because children are naturally curious. Children have a natural curiosity, and you have to be prepared to help them cultivate that.”

For many, exploring space satisfies a visceral need to reach beyond the horizon and fulfill an unending quest for knowledge and understanding.

“It’s natural for us to want to explore into the unknown,” Davis said. “I’m an explorer, and for me, going into space was the ultimate challenge physically and mentally, a way to use science and do things for our country by combining all of the things that I loved. Whether it’s in space, under water or exploring the earth, I think we learn a lot about ourselves and what else is out there by doing that.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.