Laser Eyes of the Tiger

Laser Eyes of the Tiger

Read more stories on

Deep-fried memes and peacocks: How Twitter became the digital Toomer’s Corner for Auburn fans 

What the Kentucky Men’s Basketball Twitter account tweeted on Jan. 22 quickly got more interactions than any tweet since the account was created in 2009. It was merely three words— “Final from Auburn”—plus a photo of Auburn center Walker Kessler out-jumping Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe during the tip-off. Superimposed over the photo was the score: Auburn 80, Kentucky 71.

After a day, the tweet had been liked more than 2,000 times and retweeted more than 500 times. Strong numbers, but nothing special for a blueblood like Kentucky pushing a million Twitter followers. The stat that shattered the record was the number of replies.

The final score tweet for Kentucky’s previous game, a win over Texas A&M, got 50 replies. The final score tweet for their following game, John Calipari’s 800th victory, got 23.

The Auburn game got 4,153 replies.

Trolling Toomer’s Corner

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how tweeting replies to the final score tweets of defeated Auburn basketball opponents with the garish form of images the kids call “deep-fried” memes became the post Gen-X version of rolling Toomer’s Corner.

An expert practitioner, 2015 Auburn grad @JoshDub, traced Auburn’s embrace of what had mostly been an NBA Twitter thing back to early 2020, after Auburn’s win over South Carolina. A guy named @gregoryboydd replied to South Carolina’s final score tweet with a six-second video loop of the words “You Just Lost To Bruce Pearl” superimposed over an oversaturated picture of Pearl and set to the song “Zombie Nation.”

After the next win, a few more people tweeted the same video. The win after that, a few more, plus some similarly styled originals. The embryonic Auburn artform stuck around through Covid, and the 2020-21 season, virtually indistinct from run-of-the-mill Twitter trolling. Internet memes weren’t anything new, after all. In fact, available in the official Auburn team store is a T-shirt that name checks Auburn basketball’s “social media mob,” whose most active member might be the Twitter account @AuburnMemes, started by a 2015 Auburn grad in 2012.

But in 2021, something about the in-your-face swagger of the deep-fried memes—a washed-out baby Walker Kessler playing with “blocks,” Wordle scores in the shape of an L (for loss)—began satisfying Auburn Twitter’s insatiable schadenfreude in ways traditional trash talk never had. The medium—just tweeting funny, stupid things at conquered opponents—became the message. Then, in December, something funny happened: The message became the multitude.

You got ratioed

They call it a ratio. Get way more replies to your tweet than retweets or likes? You’ve been “ratioed.” And almost every team Auburn played got ratioed.

The numbers grew, game by game—23 meme replies to Morehead State’s final score post, 35 for ULM’s and 63 for USF’s. By Auburn’s blowout win over Nebraska, it was well into triple digits. Then came conference play. More than a thousand for LSU, nearly the same for South Carolina and 1,378 for Florida.

On January 11, 2022, things went nuclear. Alabama’s final score tweet of its 81-77 home loss to Auburn received more than 4,000 replies—in less than 10 minutes. After an hour, it was more than 5,000. The sheer volume was unique in the sports landscape. Some victims of the hive-mind hijinks even began welcoming the inevitable siege with “oh boy,” “have at it,” “here it comes” in their final score tweets.

There were local stories. There were national stories. Auburn had a phenomenon on its hands.

“It really was gradual at first, but it was almost just like Auburn Twitter decided to see if we could make this a thing,” says 2012 Auburn grad @PabloEscoburner—Pablo to his friends and enemies. “Like, let’s see how many we could do.”

Pablo, arguably the movement’s tip of the spear—he and @AuburnMemes cohosted a live online tutorial on how to deep fry a meme for new initiates—has no idea how many he’s done. Must be hundreds, dozens of which were workshopped with top-tier Auburn meme makers before being launched into legend.

But his most enduring contribution is the image of fan-favorite Auburn guard K.D. Johnson, the man of 1,000 memeable faces. Pablo borrowed a close-up of Johnson, tongue out, eyes wide, shot during his Auburn’s season opener against Morehead State. On the tongue is Auburn logo. The eyes are the glowing laser-eye thing, a deep-fried meme must and the artform’s most distinct calling card.

All the players want laser eyes

“Oh, the players love it,” says 2016 Auburn grad Josh Wetzel, the man with the keys to Auburn Basketball’s social media accounts. “They’ve definitely seen it. We try really hard to build their brand and maximize their exposure, so a lot of them play into it a little even in their own social media.”

Wetzel played into it, too. Upon taking the digital media specialist job for Auburn Athletics, he’d been tasked with infusing youth and swagger into basketball’s social media strategy; meme madness was a Godsend.

“Everything that happened this season was like the perfect storm,” he said. “What was so exciting is that fans started doing this. We literally haven’t done anything besides embrace the culture.”

That embrace—from printing T-shirts to soliciting pregame memes — put Auburn in the top five of interactions on social media among college basketball programs for January and February.

“It’s made the job easy,” Wetzel said.

The only thing difficult about the new world order? Keeping up with the hourly evolution of memes.

Peacocks of the Walk

“Yeah, the whole peacock thing kind of caught me off,” Wetzel said. “I mean, as our fans jump on something, we’re not always going to jump right into it, but if it fires them up and sparks engagement, then hey.”

The official Auburn basketball twitter doesn’t have a peacock icon in its header. But Wetzel’s personal account does, as do hundreds if not thousands of other Auburn fans who embraced the flamboyant fowl as the season’s unofficial mascot, a symbol to embody Auburn hoops hoopla both on and off the court.

A meme in its own right, that particular trend and its real-world representations—stuffed peacocks at games, signs, and, yes, T-shirts—traces to an Auburn fan podcast (and subsequent blog post) in which 2008 Auburn grad Drew Crowson, the man behind “We’ve Got Jared,” the unofficial Twitter-born anthem of the 2019-20 Final Four team, insisted that Auburn fans needed to embrace the Tigers’ amazing run with bravado—“like a peacock.”

“Auburn is now on the basketball map, and this ridiculously passionate fanbase isn’t just along for the ride, we’re a part of it.”

Deep-fried peacocks with laser eyes popped up on Twitter almost immediately.

The team that NBC streaming service Peacock, per an official tweet, rooted for in the NCAA Tournament? The Auburn Tigers.

“It’s beautiful,” Pablo says. “This fanbase has been starved for basketball success for far too long. Bruce Pearl built a program that has Auburn competing with the elites, which is easy to rally around, but it didn’t happen without a lot of investment from all parties involved. This rise isn’t an accident. It’s been cultivated. It’s the building of a basketball culture through every imaginable avenue. Auburn is now on the basketball map, and this ridiculously passionate fanbase isn’t just along for the ride, we’re a part of it.”

Pablo says the one that @BasketBarner did was probably his favorite. It’s a variation on the big Captain Phillips meme—two frames from the scene in the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips” when, after boarding the boat, the main Somali pirate tells Tom Hanks “Look at me—I’m the captain now.”

Except Tom Hanks is the Kentucky logo, and the pirate is Pablo’s deep-fried K.D. Johnson, eyes glowing, tongue logo’d, delivering the message of the moment.

“I’m the blue blood now.”

Read More Auburn Alumni Stories

The Everything Player

The Everything Player

Read more stories on

Jabari Smith is the everything player at the everything school.
Jabari Smith

With the height of a center and the skills of a guard, Jabari Smith considered multiple pathways to professional basketball.

He chose Auburn.

“I wanted to experience the college life,” said Smith, a 6-10 freshman power forward on Auburn’s Men’s Basketball Team who picked the Tigers over other colleges and the NBA’s official minor league organization. “You don’t really get that college life going to the G League and different routes.”

The opportunity to attend SEC football games, interact with fellow students and begin his college education appealed to Smith. A recruiting pitch from Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl, who showed Jabari how other Atlanta metro players—such as Chuma Okeke and Isaac Okoro—thrived at his position in Auburn’s system before getting picked in the first round of the NBA Draft, sealed the deal.

“The words he said really stood out,” Smith said. “Watching their role, how much the ball is in their hands and how much freedom he lets his fours play with. It came down to the family atmosphere, the coaching staff, how much they invest in their players. That played a big part in me choosing Auburn.”

Smith wasted no time adjusting to college basketball, giving fans “a taste of everything”—as Pearl put it—in his debut: points, rebounds, steals, assists, blocked shots.

“Play the game the right way and it’ll give back to you.”

In his second game, the freshman phenom impressed again, recording his first double-double: 23 points and 10 rebounds.

“Jabari has a very advanced skillset,” said Pearl. “He’s a great jump shooter.”

A founding member of what teammates call “The Breakfast Club,” Smith arrived at Auburn Arena at 6:30 a.m. each day before the season to perfect his craft.

“We feel like going early makes you get up and push through,” Smith said. “It shows that you really want it.”

For every shot Smith shoots in a game, he’s made thousands from the same spot during practice.

“I put that confidence in me,” he said. “I’ve put in the work over the years with my teammates, my trainers and my dad.” At Sandy Creek High School in Fayetteville, Ga., Smith developed into a top-five national player in his class, becoming the highest-rated signee in Auburn history.

“My junior year was my first year of being the best player on my team. Having to lead a team. I feel like I’ve come a long way at being a leader. Being more aggressive and trying to give your team a spark.”

After graduating from high school, Smith moved to Auburn and added 20 pounds of muscle over the summer thanks to what could be called “fueling and grueling”: nutritious meals at Auburn’s Wellness Kitchen and intense workouts with Strength and Conditioning Coach Damon Davis.

“It’s making a great difference, taking bumps, being able to play with the physicality of the SEC,” said Smith, who’s listed at 220 pounds. “Feeling stronger on your shot, extending your range and how you look. It makes you feel a little better about yourself, too.”

He may be months away from becoming an NBA first-round pick, but for one season, Jabari Smith is enjoying college life and a chance to be part of a team before basketball becomes his profession.

“We love to see each other succeed,” he said. “Play the game the right way and it’ll give back to you. I’m trying to prove to everybody that I am what they think I am.”

AT A GLANCE

HOMETOWN

Fayetteville, GA

CLASS

Freshman

POSITION

Forward

HEIGHT

6’10”

1.3

STEALS

POUNDS

220

6.5

REBOUNDS

15.2

POINTS

2.0

ASSISTS

Read More Auburn Alumni Stories

The Big Question

The Big Question

What was your favorite bar, restaurant or hangout when you were a student?

“Prevail Union! Prevail was where I spent most of my time in college. I loved the community aspect there and how close it was to campus. It was also where I spent the majority of my money buying coffee during latenight study sessions!”

Addie Roberds ’17

“The Silver Spur. We would take line dancing classes on Tuesday night.”

Landra Cooper ’98

“The Casino! I learned to shoot pool there. As a local gal, my parents were NOT happy about it.”

Elizabeth Farrar ’76

“My boyfriend and I met at Quixotes in 2016! We were regulars every week until graduation. We graduated in 2019 and now live in Cincinnati. This bar has always meant so much to us. We wish we could go back for one more burger night!”

Sara Brillanti ’19

“Greeley’s or my friend’s trailer on Wire Road.”

Carol Coffey ’83

“The Casey House on the corner of Casey Avenue and Armstrong served as our favorite bar, restaurant and hangout spot. There’s something special about a house that never needed to be locked. There was always a group of friends over. No one needed an invitation.”

Hillary Rupert ’12

“My favorite bar was Bodega’s, which was on the corner of College and Magnolia. With two floors and a back patio area with lots of seating, my friends and I enjoyed hanging out there when we would go downtown. The back patio was especially fun for people watching! Bodega’s was where I spent my graduation night celebrating with friends, so it holds some great memories for me!” 

Tressa Richards ’10

“Momma G’s 99 cent chicken Italian sandwiches every Tuesday night, great on a student budget- they don’t have them anymore, or the keg corner for a jug of beer to go—good times for sure!”

Bret Mehlhouse ’89

“War Eagle Supper Club. Great music. That was a long time ago. Thankfully, we didn’t have cell phones or social media.”

Maribeth Word ’88

“Amsterdam Cafe was a great place for lunch or an early dinner date. It would get rowdy later and on the weekends. Best memories include the cold beers, playing table shuffleboard, listening to bands (the Quadrajets!) and spilling out on the sidewalk to a neighboring house where the party would continue.”

Angela Hudson ’96

“During my time in grad school the old Harry’s bar was my favorite go-to spot. Me and a friend of mine would go there to shoot pool at least 2-3 times a week. While the overall aesthetics of the place left much to be desired with the decades of graffiti on the walls, the essentially nonfunctioning toilets and the odor of 30 years’ worth of cigarette smoke gave the place a certain charm.”

Christopher Murray ’98

“My friends’ favorite hangout spot was Skybar!”

Alisa Lamar ’18

“Pasquale’s pizza downtown and Sani-Freeze. They were about the only spots in walking distance of campus.”

Kay Keeshan ’69

“Momma Goldbergs right across the street from lowder. We even would have classes there at times.”

Jonathan Krueger ’20

“The Supper Club, Wings to go, Bottchers, Highlands, Bourbon Street and The Blue Room.”

Britni Miltner ‘04

“Finks. A chill place during down times, and the coolest spot for a band or Halloween gig when crowded. (It didn’t hurt that my roommate was a server!) War Eagle!”

Katie Parker ’02

“War Eagle Supper Club—especially on Sunday nights when Bob Richardson and Jane Drake brought the jazz!”

Paul McCracken ’91

“Byron’s for breakfast no doubt!!! Favorite memory there is f irst day of school breakfast our senior year. The six of us were in basically every class together all four years at Auburn! War damn COSAM!!!

Katelyn Riant ’19

“Quixotes! Probably spent too much time there, especially during freshman/sophomore year!”

Brian Moyer ’10

“I loved Price’s BBQ House. My friends and I started going there when they first opened and continued to go every time I was in town. I also took my kids there before every home game and made sure I went by the last week they were open. You never knew who you might meet there as well.”

Harry Abrams ’81

“Definitely the War Eagle Supper Club! I once met Zac Brown Band there when they were nobodies performing on a random Thursday night. We had a few drinks together and then they played til the cows came home!”

Kate Cole ’07

“Bodega, located at the NW corner of Toomer’s Corner. Lots of laughs and good times had with life long friends.”

Nicole Brown ’10

“Behind the Glass when it was a cafe, art gallery and boutique.”

Wendy Blaszyk ’89

“Denaro’s on Wednesday nights. Coach Bowden would usually show up for the karaoke.”

Jamie Cragg ’96

David Markey ’74 and June Copeland ’71 celebrated their 50th anniversary by spending a weekend in Auburn. “We enjoyed visiting where we met at the ‘Haley Wall’ and a great dinner at Hamilton’s on Magnolia … formerly Pasqually’s!”

David Markey ’74

June Copeland ’71

“The strutting duck”

Ella Bitto ’99

“Harry’s where the ‘ambiance will seduce you’!”

Beth Stephens ’93

“The Flush. Ice Cream after a long day of studying was always a treat.”

Steve Ramey ’80

Read More Auburn Alumni Stories

To the Moon and Beyond: Chuck Bergh ’94

To the Moon and Beyond: Chuck Bergh ’94

Read more stories on

How are we going to explore distant planets? With robots, of course

 

Chuck Bergh and the robot

RoboSimian (Cylde) with Brett Kennedy (left) and Chuck Bergh. RoboSimian, developed to respond to mass industrial accidents such as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown in 2011, placed 5th worldwide in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. December 2013. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Chuck Bergh ’94 has been passionate about all things aerospace ever since he was a child. Both of his grandfathers served in the military and his father was in the Air Force, so he grew up around stories of fighter planes and all of the military’s cutting-edge technology.

But by the time Bergh was ready for college, his dream of pursuing a career in aerospace seemed as dim as Saturn’s rings. When he got to Auburn University, he switched his major from aerospace to mechanical engineering and set his sights on a career in manufacturing, securing a job with electronics giant TDK Corporation after graduation.

“We’d seen the beginnings of the ‘peace dividend’ start to kick in because we had already ended hostilities with the Russians at that point,” Bergh says, “and America just wasn’t spending as much on its defense program at the time.”

Nearly three decades later, though, Bergh is the lead test and integration engineer for the Vision Compute Element of the Mars 2020 mission, named Perseverance and launched this past summer, which will seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth.

“The Vision Compute Element is a computer we built to improve landing accuracy,” Bergh says. “For example, the landing sites for the previous Spirit and Opportunity rovers were roughly 100 kilometers by 10 kilometers, or about the size of a county. For Perseverance, we have tightened that to a 40 meter diameter circle, or about half a football field.”

Bergh got the opportunity to reclaim his childhood dream of working for NASA while he pursuing his doctorate in engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in the late 1990s. As luck would have it, he happened to get an interview with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where they essentially offered to pay him to do the work he was about to do for free during his Georgia Tech doctorate.

“I grew up watching the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle program, and all these really cool things happening,” Bergh says, “and suddenly I’m being invited to join that club. So I jumped on the opportunity to come out to Pasadena.”

Bergh started his career with NASA in robotics, and that’s where he’s been ever since — including work on RoboSimian, an ape-like robot that competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals in 2015. An engineer with a master’s degree among a team of PhDs, Bergh is affectionately called “Howard Wolowitz,” the character from The Big Bang Theory, by his wife Tanja. Now, with the Mars 2020 mission, Bergh has been able to transfer his engineering expertise from a walking robot to a driving rover.

“When I came to JPL, I started working on these portable robots, which later became PackBot from iRobot and picked up by the military,” Bergh says. “This is what they were sending into the caves to protect our soldiers trying to clear caves and in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, I was also working on new ways to land on comets, and those techniques have evolved into what we’re using for Mars now.”

What’s unique about Mars 2020 is that Bergh and his team have come up with the first purpose-built instrument that will change personalities during a mission. When Perseverance lands, the team will load new software into the Vision Compute Element that will transform it from a landing computer to a driving computer.

“What most people don’t know,” Bergh says, “is that all the previous rovers would drive for a little bit, stop, look around, assess their surroundings, choose a new path, and then move forward again. The whole purpose of this new computer is to allow the rover to drive on the surface continuously.”

Bergh’s plan for the foreseeable future is to keep answering the calls of what the NASA scientists come up with next, including working to provide terrain-relative navigation for the Human Landing System for the Artemis program, which intends to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024.

But one of the areas he’s particularly interested in is a mission to the ocean moons orbiting Saturn and Jupiter.

“We’re working on some cool technologies to explore these water vents and cryo volcanoes that exist on these other moons,” Bergh says. “We’re developing a snake robot that could potentially crawl its way down into them and investigate.”

Though Bergh has seen many changes in manufacturing technologies since he got that serendipitous interview with JPL twenty years ago — innovations like additive manufacturing and 3D printing that allow NASA engineers to make better motors and structures for going to these far-off places — neither his curiosity nor his passion has been satisfied.

“I still think about my grandfather a lot,” Bergh says. “He grew up in central Alabama at the turn of the century, and yet he saw so much in his lifetime: the Battle of the Bulge, the entire Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.”

“I’m hoping that I can see nearly half as much change in my lifetime as he saw.”

 

The War Eagle Has Landed

The War Eagle Has Landed

Read more stories on

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.

War Eagle Has Landed Header feature story

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
The War Eagle Has Landed earth graphic

“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.

From Auburn Magazine: "The War Eagle Has Landed"

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.”