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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
“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.”