|Opelika-Auburn News Interview with Dr. James R. Hansen, Director of the AU Honors College and Neil Armstrong Biographer
The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by the Opelika-Auburn News with Dr. James R. Hansen, organizer of “The Eagle Has Landed at Auburn,” to be held in the auditorium of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Art, on the Auburn University campus, on Thursday, July 16. The symposium commemorates the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing, by the Apollo 11 mission, in July 1969.
Hansen: Auburn University has produced six astronauts as well as three directors of the Kennedy Space Center. The three youngest AU astronauts, who came after Apollo and flew with the Space Shuttle program, were James Voss (Opelika native), Kathryn Thornton, and Jan David. The other three--all of whom were part of the Apollo program--were Ken Mattingly, Henry "Hank" Hartsfield, and Clifton C. "C.C." Williams.
Opelika-Auburn News: When it comes to the nation's space program, and its worldwide impact, Auburn University may not come to mind for some folks. Talk to me a bit about the contributions Auburn University has made and continues to make to the space program/ NASA?
Hansen: It’s impossible to calculate just how significantly Auburn University contributed to American’s first Moon landing back in July 1969 or to the Apollo program generally. At its peak Apollo employed over 400,000 Americans in government, industry, and universities. No one has ever tried to count how many of them were Auburn graduates, but no doubt there were hundreds—many of them science majors or graduates of our engineering school. Some of them were among the unsung heroes of the space program, individuals whose efforts on behalf of the Moon landings were essential, if not glamorous enough to make any headlines.
Opelika-Auburn News: AU has produced six astronauts? Their names other than T.K. Mattingly?
Hansen:The Apollo astronaut from Auburn that is best known is 1958 engineering graduate Thomas Kenneth Mattingly, who is probably more famous for actor Gary Sinise’s depiction of him in the movie “Apollo 13” but who actually flew to the Moon and back as the command module pilot for Apollo 16, in 1972. Ken (or "TK" as he is known to his friends) comes back to campus regularly—the last time this past March when he came here to accept from NASA an award as an “Ambassador of Exploration,” the award being a piece of a Moon rock, which TK promptly donated to the university for us to safe-keep and put on public display.
The other Auburn graduate who was an Apollo astronaut, unfortunately, is not so well known and did not live nearly as long. That was another 1954 Auburn graduate, Clifton C. “C.C.” Williams, who was killed in 1967 after a mechanical failure caused the flight controls of his T-38 airplane to stop responding. That crash happened near Tallahassee. He was on his way home from Cape Canaveral to visit his father, who was dying of cancer. Williams, a naval ROTC student at AU and a major in the United States Marine Corps, was part of NASA’s third group of astronauts. He served on the backup crew for Gemini X in 1966 and had been assigned to the back-up crew for what was to be the Apollo 9 mission. If he had lived, this crew placement would have led to Williams being assigned as the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 12, which means that he would have been part of the second Moon landing mission and, as such, would have been the fourth human being ever to walk on the surface of another heavenly body. Instead, astronaut Alan Bean got to take his place.
A second Auburn graduate who was part of Apollo was Henry Hartsfield. Hank, who is also still living, was a 1954 Auburn graduate in physics and he became a NASA astronaut in September 1969, just two months after the first Moon landing. Hank was a member of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 16 and then served as a member of the astronaut support crew for the Skylab 2, 3, and 4 missions, all of which used Apollo technology.
Hansen: Many space exploration advocates want to set a human mission to Mars as the next big objective, but I think we need to focus on the systems necessary to build a Moonbase. The scientific and technological knowledge to be gained by building such a base is immense. Also, the Moon is really the ideal point from which to launch missions to Mars and beyond.
Opelika-Auburn News: Talk to me about why the Moon is important in terms of scientific research and why this mission's anniversary marks such a pivotal turning point in the nation's and world's history?
Hansen: Though we know more about the Moon than we know about any world besides our own, we've still have barely begun to solve its countless mysteries. Following the Apollo Moon landings there developed this widespread misperception that we had discovered everything about the Moon that was important to know--because why else would we stop going? It was “been there, done that” mindset. But nothing could have been further from the truth. The Moon speaks to our 4.5 billion years of solar system history, and it has recorded that history more completely and more clearly than any other planetary body. So it's absolutely the very best place for us to investigate the past time when Earth and the other terrestrial planets were formed.
Apollo 11 was the first time humankind had ever set foot on another heavenly body. For the first time, the Earth was no longer our whole World but a small, wet, spinning planet in a solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the immeasurable distances of space. The most significant images from the Moon landings came when the astronauts pointed their cameras back and saw Spaceship Earth, our precious and fragile oasis in the black vastness.
Opelika-Auburn News: Looking back on the achievements of yesteryear is important, but talk to me about the next step in the nation's space program? What's next in terms of space exploration?
Opelika-Auburn News: Tell me about some of the other major events going this week on campus commemorating the 40th anniversary of the moon landing?
Hansen: Our species has come a very long way. We're no longer tied to a geographical area or even to the world in which we were born. The heavens lie open to us. It's just a matter of time before we will roam the solar system. It may not happen this year, the next decade, or even this century. But we'll be going, of that I have no doubt. What we may need to do first--or at least hand in hand with our space exploration--is make sure Spaceship Earth itself survives. It's facing serious environmental and other problems--and our space program has been, and will continue to be, part of the solution to those problems.
Hansen: We have seven distinguished experts in space history, aerospace engineering, and space science coming to discuss what they know about the past, present, and future of the space exploration. The morning keynote will be delivered by Dr. Mike Griffin, the immediate past head of NASA. Interdisciplinary groups of experts like this don't come together every day, so we're lucky to have such an extraordinary program right here at Auburn. In the evening we are showing some remarkable films that have not been viewed for a very long time, including what was CBS News's live coverage of the Apollo 11 landing and Neil Armstrong's first steps on to the lunar surface.
Opelika-Auburn News: Since that history-making day 40 years ago, there have been many more space missions as well as a number of tragic accidents Challenger, Columbia). Tell me why it's important to keep pressing forward in terms of space exploration?
The Opelika-Auburn News published an article based on this interview in its July 14, 2009 edition. Below is a link to that story: