UH helped NASA get to the moon
July 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of man first stepping foot on the moon, and not many people know that UH helped NASA get there.
The start of their partnership began in the early 1960s with the decision to bring the Manned Spacecraft Center, which would be renamed as the Johnson Space Center, to Houston. The location was chosen due to the close proximity to UH and Rice University.
Already looking to expand UH’s offerings, this provided President Phillip Guthrie Hoffman an opportunity to extend resources to NASA.
“The location of the space center in Houston particularly provided a stimulant to the University of Houston to accelerate its development as a major university,” historian Henry Dethloff wrote in his book “Suddenly Tomorrow Came…A History of the Johnson Space Center.”
A University newsletter from June 1962 cited an agreement between the two in which NASA’s partnership would expand into a physical presence on campus by leasing a two-story building.
“It is anticipated that MSC scientists and computing personnel will develop a close working relationship with their counterparts at the University of Houston,” the announcement said. “Some 1,000 NASA engineers and technicians will be trained by University personnel in programming for the digital computer.”
NASA announced on Sept. 17, 1962 from Cullen Performance Hall the names of the second group of nine astronauts who would work on the NASA mission, six of whom would later fly to the moon.
The event brought media from around the world to UH as they covered the event, putting the University on the map.
“The auditorium was packed to capacity with television, radio, newspaper and magazine reporters from across the United States and around the world, all jostling to gain the best position, with television cameras and photographers recording the scene for the waiting public,” said Colin Burgess in his book “Moon Bound.”
Once it became apparent that NASA was in Houston for the long run, internal University memos show administrators attempting to tailor existing courses to the MSC.
The established chemical engineering program, primarily focused towards the oil industry, proved transferable to providing training for the movement of liquids in zero-G conditions.
Beginning in the fall of 1964, UH professors began traveling to the MSC campus in order to teach classes there. In the first year, more than 500 MSC staff members enrolled in STEM courses.
NASA also provided UH students with opportunities to prepare themselves for jobs within the agency by funding fellowships.
“The University of Houston received direct fellowship funding from MSC totaling $365,000 by 1965, which provided 20 graduate fellowships in business. and space-related science and technology fields,” Dehloff wrote.
Cramped makeshift classrooms at the MSC proved there would be a need for a more accessible campus adjacent to the facility. In a letter to Hoffman dated Sept. 13, 1965, MSC Director Robert Gilruth requested the creation of a permanent campus to provide educational opportunities to the MSC workforce and for use as a tool of recruitment.
“I would like to request that the University of Houston give immediate consideration to the establishment of a permanent graduate and undergraduate educational facility in the Clear Lake area,” said Gilruth in the letter to Hoffman.
In 1968, Paul Purser, special assistant to the director of Project Mercury, took a leave of absence from his work at NASA to help Hoffman establish a UH campus in Clear Lake.
The University of Houston Clear Lake was officially recognized by 1971 as a Texas institution, authorized only to offer upper level undergraduate and graduate courses.
UHCL has since expanded to offer a full undergraduate and graduate degree programs in line with NASA’s mission. Notable alumni includes Guion Bluford Jr., the first African American in space, and Bruce McCandless II, the first person to make an untethered spacewalk.
Today UH operates the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture. It focuses on engineering housing capable of surviving in extreme conditions similar to those found in space.
“We hope to supply (NASA) with skilled graduates that have systems engineering level of understanding of the whole architecture not just the design and the engineering,” said former astronaut and UH professor Dr. Bonnie Dunbar in a 2015 video about the center.