The War Eagle Has Landed

The War Eagle Has Landed

For more than 50 years, Auburn grads have helped turn America’s wanderlust for space travel into a reality. With a new mission to return to the moon and explore Mars, hundreds of Auburn Tigers find themselves the architects of humankind’s next adventure in the Big Blue.

When the United States landed on the moon in 1969, Auburn University was a part of it. Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin were manning Apollo 11, but two engineers who helped make that happen were Auburn graduates.

“That was the very beginning of the space program,” says Mike Ogles, Auburn’s director of NASA programs. “I mean, that’s when we landed on the moon. That was the start of it.”

It didn’t end there. From astronauts (including Ken Mattingly ’58 and Hank Hartsfield ’54, alumni who flew an all-Auburn shuttle mission together in 1982) to engineers and researchers and others, people from the Loveliest Village have been instrumental in exploring the cosmos.

And now, with President Donald Trump calling for a return to the moon by 2024, Auburn is again on the frontlines of space exploration, helping to lead a resurgence of space interest. Auburn alumni working in the space industry say we’re close to putting men and women back on the moon — and after that, we have our sights set on Mars.

AUBURN AND NASA

Doug Loverro ’89, who earned a master’s in political science at Auburn, is NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operation Missions Directorate. It’s a mouthful of a title, but he has a pretty straightforward mission: he’s in charge of getting humans back to the moon.

“The president has asked us to go back to the moon in the next four and a half years, and we’re charged with how we’re going to do that,” says Loverro, who took the job at the end of 2019 after a distinguished Department of Defense career that included five years as assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”

Todd May ’90, whose 25-year NASA career included working on the International Space Station project and running the Space Launch System, says NASA’s focus is back to what it was in the Apollo years.

There’s no doubt that Auburn University has an untold number of graduates involved in the space program. We talked to just a few of them for this story:
  • DOUG LOVERRO (master’s in political science, 1989), NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operation Missions Directorate
  • TODD MAY (materials engineering, 1990), former director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, now vice president of space strategy for KBR in Huntsville
  • JIM VOSS (aerospace engineering, 1972), a former astronaut now teaching at the University of Colorado
  • MIKE OGLES (mechanical engineering, 1989), Auburn’s director of NASA programs, who oversees millions of dollars in research contracts that Auburn has with NASA
  • SUZAN VOSS (mathematics, 1971), a 35-year NASA veteran who has worked with the space shuttle and space station programs
  • AMY JAGER (aerospace engineering, 2005), project manager with the Aerospace Corporation, a NASA contractor
  • TIM MONK (aerospace engineering, 2005), a senior manager with Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company
  • JONATHAN MITCHELL (international business, 2013), policy advisor in the New Zealand Space Agency Not an exhaustive list, by any means, but let’s keep this conversation going. Know others involved in space exploration? Let us know at aubmag@auburn.edu

 

“Before I even got out of high school, we had kind of halted deep-space exploration,” says May, who was director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and now works for a private company in Huntsville. “We dipped our toe into deep space with the Apollo program, and then we stopped. We decided to build the shuttle instead and establish a permanent presence in space in low-Earth orbit. For the last 30 years or so, that’s been a major focus.”

Two other Auburn NASA connections are Suzan Voss ’71, who is wrapping up a 35-year career with the agency, and Amy Jager ’05, who has been a contract employee for the past seven years.

“It’s exciting to be involved in these programs where you’re launching crew, science and cargo to space, and, of course, safely returning them to Earth,” says Voss, a mathematics major and a member of Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics Leadership Council.

“I really loved the shuttle, but I like the space station even more. It’s great to work with international partners, and the station has gotten to a point where their focus is on science, technology and discoveries in low-Earth orbit.”

We’re basically looking to establish a lunar orbiting outpost around the moon

Now, a focus at NASA is on the lunar Gateway, which will be a small spaceship — including living quarters, labs and more —that will orbit around the moon and provide access to the moon’s surface.

Jager is working on that project as a contractor with Aerospace Corporation.

“We’re basically looking to establish a lunar orbiting outpost around the moon,” says Jager, who works at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the logistics module of the Gateway. “Pieces of it will be launched and it will be assembled there.”

Astronauts Ken Mattingly (front) and Hank Hartsfield on their way to Launch Pad 39A on May 29, 1982 for a rehearsal of their liftoff.

BLUE ORIGIN AND OTHERS

Auburn’s involvement is not limited to NASA. In 2006, the agency’s COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems) program opened up avenues for commercial companies to fly supplies (and, eventually, people) to the space station, helping to bring companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to prominence.

“That’s when NASA first decided to do something in a different way,” says Jim Voss ’72, who spent 202 days in space on both shuttle missions and on the International Space Station. “They said, ‘Build us a cargo vehicle, meet these requirements and do it safely, and when you’re done, if it works, we’ll buy your services.’”

Some of these companies have already launched satellites into space, while others have bigger plans, such as developing vehicles that can carry humans into space.

Loverro says these groups are partners with NASA, not competitors.

“When I was growing up, we viewed companies like Lockheed and Martin Marietta and Northrop as these big industrial giants that the government turned to do things, and we forget that their roots were exactly the same as the Blue Origins and the SpaceXes,” he says. “If Elon Musk is not an exact facsimile of Howard Hughes, just 60 or 70 years removed, I don’t know who is.”

Another major player is Bezos, founder of Amazon. His Blue Origin, like Musk’s SpaceX, is working on prototypes for new spacecraft.

Tim Monk ’05, who graduated from Auburn with Jager, is a senior manager at Blue Origin working on the company’s New Glenn project, which the company calls a “heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying people and payloads routinely to Earth orbit and beyond.”

“In a nutshell, what Jeff has given Blue Origin to accomplish is to get humanity to the point where millions of people are living and working in space,” Monk says.

The goal is to fly the New Glenn by the end of next year, but first comes Blue Origin’s New Shepherd, which plans to fly astronauts this year, Monk says.

All of it is good for the space industry, Loverro says.

“Every time that Elon Musk excites the American public about space, we get more applications at NASA. Every time Jeff Bezos excites the American public about space, we get more people who want to join us on that journey.”

One Auburn grad is trying to excite people on the other side of the world. Jonathan Mitchell ’13, a New Zealand native, has returned to his home country to work for the New Zealand Space Agency, part of the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

“The NZSA is heavily focused on the commercial aspects of space and in promoting, enabling and growing our domestic sector,” he says. “What I’ve particularly enjoyed is seeing just how much space activity is happening in New Zealand and getting to interact with and hear from some really smart, driven people who are collectively building a cutting-edge industry with real-world impacts for New Zealand.”

All of this points to what May refers to as a “sea change” in the space industry.

“It’s very clear that space isn’t just for NASA and the American government,” he says. “It has become much more democratized. I think there are over 100 companies now either developing or flying rockets around the world. The next Americans to launch from American soil will launch from a commercially driven development. The government is still involved, but it’s a completely different way of doing it.

“What we see going forward is that NASA wants to explore, and we want to go back into deep space, but we don’t want to do it alone,” he adds. “We want countries and companies to come with us. We want a viable commercial industry to develop, and we want America to lead. NASA’s role has become one of enabling that market to grow.”

In my personal world, I would want us to get on with it and go on to Mars, but I’m not the one who has to make the decisions that might involve risk to life, either.

TO THE MOON AND BEYOND

After a number of decades, NASA has set its sights on deepspace travel again, and Auburn’s space contingent is all for it.

“By abandoning the Apollo program, we lost the ability to get humans into deep space, and by abandoning the shuttle, we lost the ability to put humans in space at all,” May says. “Now I’d say we have started back, and our goal in deep-space exploration is to go and stay.”

Loverro says further space exploration is directly linked to getting men and women back on the moon.

“After that, what are we going to do?” he asks. “We get to envision how we are going to sustain our presence on the moon and then, more importantly, how we’re going to extend human existence to Mars.”

Voss, who teaches at the University of Colorado, says the 2024 goal is “physically impossible,” but it might happen “relatively soon after that.”

“We’ll eventually get back to the moon, and even farther out,” Voss says. “I really do believe we’ll get to Mars. NASA has to take the conservative approach, which is going back to the moon and learning some things we need to learn for deep-space exploration. We have a better chance of solving problems if they’re closer. In my personal world, I would want us to get on with it and go on to Mars, but I’m not the one who has to make the decisions that might involve risk to life, either; I think I’ll see us land on the moon again, but Mars is probably 30 to 40 years away.”

May agrees that 2024 is probably not realistic for getting back to the moon, and he says what we need to do goes far beyond just landing there. He discussed that very point with one of a dozen people to know about landing there firsthand.

Jim Voss ’72, Expedition Two flight engineer, prepares to exercise on the cycle ergometer in the Zvezda Service Module on March 23, 2001. “I had breakfast with Buzz Aldrin in Naples, Italy, one morning and I was able to ask him if it was a moral victory if we go back to the moon,” May says. “He said, and this is one of 12 guys who can say it, ‘I’ve been there, and planting a flag is all fine, but what do you do after that?’ His point was that you don’t go to just plant a flag or just for the glory. You go to settle. At the end of the day, altruistic reasons are not the only reasons to go. In order for it to be sustainable, it needs to have some sort of business there.”

For Loverro, his job at NASA couldn’t be more exciting as the space agency and other companies, many of them with Auburn graduates working there, set their sights on the stars.

“It’s all unplowed ground,” Loverro says. “There’s nothing we have today that will get us there. Everything will be something my team conceives of, test out, do the research on or build. We get to do the most fun thing in the universe, which is to explore it.”

The Mark of Vorovoro

The Mark of Vorovoro

HAILEY CONQUEST’S IS JUST ABOVE THE CROOK OF HER ARM. It’s from a gospel song that the Fijian national rugby team sings before each match: “Eda Sa Qaqa”—we have overcome.

It was typical June night on Vorovoro, and she and the other 16 students who visited this past summer are in their sulus, gathered around Tui Mali on the floor of the great grand bure that Auburn and Bridge the Gap rebuilt in 2017. Their hearts are full, their tongues numb from kava, and they realize that Tui Mali — the chief of the Mali tribe! — is inviting them to watch the biggest rugby match of the year on the tiny solar-powered TV in his tiny house on his 200-acre island. It’s a big deal.

So they stay up until 2 a.m., head off past the water catchment system, bucket showers, medicinal garden and odorless composting toilets, and barefoot it over ferns and fronds and 3,000-year-old pottery fragments through the Fijian jungle to sit on a concrete floor with Tui Mali and his nephew, Bogi, and watch the boys who sing “Eda sa Qaqa” beat the U.S. for the championship. The amazing sun rises, and they parade back across paradise to their tiny tin-roof dorm, crawl into their mosquito-net beds and pinch themselves. The next night, they march into the grand bure waving tiny Fijian flags and singing “Eda sa Qaqa.”

Tui Mali always smiles. He smiled while granting them permission to stay during the sevu sevu. He smiled when they tried their first coconut shell of kava, and he smiled when they finally learned the moves to the meke. But Hailey had never seen him smile like that. Hailey’s a global studies major. She’s considering the Peace Corps, so the six credits’ worth of realworld lessons in natural resource management and permaculture and everything were amazing. But the smile — that’s what she’ll remember forever

 

Living A Totally Different Life

Global studies senior Haley Turner ’20 is no longer considering the Peace Corps — she’s signed up. It’s happening. Two years in Cameroon, all because of Fiji.

“We were just living this totally different life,” she says of her first trip. “It helped me learn to communicate with people from The College of Human Science’s Sustainability in Action trip leaves a mark on you very different cultures.”

 

Left to right: Nemani, Laura Vinzant, Sibley Barnette and Haley Turner.

That’s the most valuable thing she left with, she says — the skills to navigate social nuance 7,000 miles from Sky Bar. Like knowing not to show the tattoo to her homestay family when, like her friend Laura Vinzant ’19, she returned to Vorovoro a year later to help facilitate the 2019 Auburn trip as a Bridge the Gap intern. (The modesty-minded Mali can’t do much about the bikini-clad tourists who occasionally anchor illegally off the coast, but when Tui Mali adopts you as a daughter, it’s time to cover up.)

It’s not that she didn’t want to. You wind up closer to the folks you’re with during the “first-hand look into authentic island life,” as the Sustainability in Action website calls it, than anyone else you meet in Fiji. Three days in a Mali village, living with people who have hardly anything and still want to give it all to you? Vinzant’s host family had one bed. It was a pad. She got it.

It went the same for Turner. She spent her first night cuddled up with four kids on the home’s single mattress, waiting out a storm with…well, she doesn’t remember their names. To her, they’re still just Mom and Dad. And she couldn’t disappoint Mom and Dad.

“Mine is on my ribs,” she says. “I was like, ‘no, I can’t show you!’ But I’d just point to Laura’s arm because it’s the same tattoo.”

Vuvale — Fijian for family, literally “my home is your home.”

Sibley Barnette ‘18, a natural resources management graduate, and went to fight climate change on the shrinking shores of an island with no water source. But the four-inch outline of Vorovoro on her side isn’t a tribute to the environment—it’s an attempt to explain the experience, the sense of belonging.

At first, she’d planned to go with something about family, too. It seemed right. After three trips — one as a student, two as a Bridge the Gap intern — the place felt like home.

In the end, she kept the design but changed the words. There was just something in Tui Mali’s voice that one time, something in his eyes as he looked around at the eager young Americans working side by side with his people. It wasn’t a statement—it was a question.

“Rawa Va Cava?” — How can it be?

HOW TIGERS GOT TO FIJI

It was August 2010. Kate Thornton ’07, director of global education in Auburn University’s College of Human Sciences, needed a break from her dissertation. She turned on the BBC. There it was.
“Paradise or Bust” was a five-part reality show about two British entrepreneurs who, in 2006, transplanted an online “tribe” onto a practically deserted island to establish what they claimed would be the most unique ecotourism experience in the world.

There would be buildings! There would be publicity!

Tui Mali said yes.

So did Thornton.

“I promised myself that if I ever finished the paper, I’d go there,” she says.

Four months later, she booked one of the last vacations to Vorovoro via Tribewanted.com. She was in love.

“A year later, I was a new member of the team in the College of Human Sciences and had an opportunity to write a grant for a new study abroad program,” Thornton says. “I was just like, ‘I have to take students back to that place.’”

She emailed Jenny Cahill.

In 2009, Jenny Cahill’s family needed a vacation. She’d read about Tribewanted in one of the dozens of stories on the charming start-up experiment. It seemed perfect. She logged on, signed up for a month and wound up staying for 12, the company’s founder convincing her and her ex-husband to take over island operations for what turned out to be Tribewanted’s fourth and final year on Vorovoro. The work was fantastic. Until it wasn’t.

Bookings dried up. Buildings buckled. The Cahills and Tui Mali occasionally shared Vorovoro with just one or two backpackers for weeks at a time. Bad for business. Great for bonding.

Hailey Conquest with her Vorovoro family.

 

“We fell in love with the [Mali] community,” Cahill says from her Indianapolis home, in between calls with marketing intern Natalie Jaroch, an Auburn global studies junior who took the Sustainability in Action trip last summer. “We thought we could use our relationships to create a visitor experience that was something truly sustainable.”

Exchange instead of escape. Partnership rather than ownership. Precious water. Precious jobs.

“That,” she says of the labor of love she began in 2012, “is the idea behind Bridge the Gap.” And, yes, “absolutely,” she says as director—without Auburn and Kate Thornton, the gap wouldn’t be bridged.

 

Students participating in the meke.

PRESERVATION THROUGH PRESENCE

Cahill and Thornton connected through the Tribewanted message boards and stayed in touch. Until Thornton came calling in 2011, Bridge the Gap was essentially just an idea. University collaboration, however, provided the organizational infrastructure necessary to develop the most immersive study abroad program in the world, one that Auburn has helped pioneer.

“We’ve essentially built this model,” Thornton says. “Some of the Fijians we work with don’t have high school educations, but they’re sharing their expertise and knowledge with American college students, which puts them in a place of honor instead of service.”

On Vorovoro, students don’t just learn about a different culture—by their very presence, they literally help preserve it.

Currently, the Fijian government strongly encourages tribal chiefs interested in maintaining autonomy on their land to demonstrate “development,” which typically involves names like Hilton and Marriott. But by virtue of Auburn’s educational initiatives, sustainability studies and collaborative community improvement projects, Vorovoro — to the delight of Melanesian archaeologists, who in 2010 proclaimed it the oldest inhabited piece of the Fijian archipelago — now legally qualifies as a cultural center (i.e., a development).

Through Bridge the Gap, Auburn is protecting the Mali tribe’s past by providing its members opportunities to improve their future. And now Auburn is showing other universities how to do the same.

After eight exclusive years with Auburn, Bridge the Gap and tribe members are facilitating similar programs with Arizona State University and Purdue University.

“I never would have been able to reach out to these other schools,” Cahill says, “without working with Auburn.”

Tui Mali nods, just as appreciative.

“When [Tribewanted] was here, it happened so quick, I thought maybe another one can come,” he says. “There were buildings, but all going down. When Auburn University come, they start building up.” “That,” he says, pointing toward his beloved grand bure, smiling, “is from Auburn.”

Tui Mali

1 + 1 = 1

Tui Mali has a beatific little proverb about what’s been happening on his island. He says it so much, the students on the 2016 trip painted it on a board and nailed it to the coconut tree with all the distances posted on it: Auburn, where “Kate and the students” live —11,466 kilometers. Indianapolis, where “Mama Jenny” lives — 11,737 kilometers. There’s also a sign for Cegu Valley Farm, a 32-acre family homestead just outside the mainland city of Labasa that recently began offering select Sustainability in Action students an extra month of sustainability in action as beekeeping, kale-growing interns. But up top, in the place of honor: 1 + 1 = 1.

Sometimes the numbers don’t add up until the last day, during the goodbye song, or as everyone bawls as Bogi stands on the bow in his Fiji rugby shirt and leads a “War Eagle”, while little waving kids run after the boats along the shore. A few hours later, they’re at the five-star Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay for their first hot shower in forever. And everyone hates it.

They’re wasting water. They’re only watching the meke. They’re ordering kava from a menu.

The Sustainability in Action website calls it examining “the wealth of tourists versus the life of an average Fijian,” and it’s awful.

“(The resort) is in Nandi, where all the tourists go, and where there are lines people don’t really cross,” says Emily Strobaugh ’18, who graduated with degrees in global studies and English literature. Strobaugh went on the Sustainability in Action trip and interned at Cegu Valley Farms in 2017. “Native Fijians there are discouraged from talking to tourists…it was just so strange. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here.’”

That’s when it sinks in. It’s not some kum ba yah cliché—on Vorovoro, it’s the solution to everything: 1 + 1 = 1.

Emily prefers it in Fijian: Dua Kei Na Dua Sa Dua. She got Tui Mali to write it down for her. She wanted it in his handwriting.

She didn’t wait till she got back to the states. On the day between the end of the study abroad and the start of her internship, she took the piece of paper to downtown Labasa, pointed to the back of her neck and told the tattoo artist “just like that.”

Fiji sign

Whether it’s a month with a Mali Tribe or a semester of language learning in Spain, Auburn offers countless study abroad choices. See auburn.edu/academic/international/auab for a full schedule and read on for a few more examples.

BIOMECHANICS AND ENGINEERING IN THE ARTS

People don’t typically associate engineering with the arts. Biomechanics and Engineering in the Arts is out to change that. Participants in this new study abroad offering from the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering head to Florence, Italy to learn the biomechanics, roots of ballet, opera, the symphony and even painting by exploring the lives and engineering influence of Leonardo Da Vinci and Giovanni Borelli, the father of biomechanics. eng.auburn.edu/global

JOSEPH S. BRUNO ITALY PROGRAM

You can’t talk Auburn study abroad options without mentioning the popular Joseph S. Bruno Italy program. Three months studying Italian art in a 15th-century palace in the Roman suburb of Ariccia? The College of Human Sciences tells students that their assignment is simple: “Experience everything.” By trip’s end, participants will have an international minor in human sciences. humsci.auburn.edu/global/studyabroad.php

SPAIN SEMESTER PROGRAM

Want to learn Spanish? Move to Spain. Students who take advantage of the College of Liberal Arts’ immersive Spain Semester Program in quaint Alcalá de Henares improve their language skills by living with host families on the outskirts of Madrid. Students study at the Universidad de Alcalá, which is located in a renovated 17th-century convent. cla.auburn.edu/forlang/study-abroad

 

THE ROLE OF FORESTS IN HUMAN LIVELIHOOD AND HEALTH IN AFRICA TRIP

A trip led by faculty in the College of Veterinary Medicine and the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences examines environmental health, public health, animal health and economic development in both South Africa and Madagascar. In addition to taking in stunning scenery, students pursue holistic, multidisciplinary solutions to problems that affect humans and animals. sfws.auburn.edu/student-life/study-abroad