More than Tang – The Ongoing Impact of the Space Program

Thu, 04/06/2017

The 66 CHC students enrolled in Honors 390EH: How the 1960s Changed America enjoyed some star power at their class meeting on March 30 in the CHC Events Hall East. Col. Cady Coleman, PhD. ’91 was the guest lecturer on the space program. The retired Air Force Colonel, and former NASA astronaut who participated in three Space Shuttle and two International Space Station missions provided students with insight on the socio-historical context and cultural implications of the space program from the 1960s through today.

Col. Coleman outlined the structure of the 1960’s space program, which consisted of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Each mission had a set of goals and challenges to be overcome, each more complex than the mission preceding it. It was this structure, along with an institutional culture of teamwork and learning from failure that led NASA from starting from scratch in 1961 to having a human walk on the moon in 1969. Col. Coleman made connections between NASA’s work and the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the civil rights movement, including the groundbreaking work of the African-American mathematicians at NASA featured the recent film, “Hidden Figures,” and the economic situation of the period, in which U.S. resources were allocated to the Vietnam War and Great Society social programs in addition to the NASA space program.

Innovations and developments in aerospace engineering, mathematics, communications and computing as a result of the space program had applications for life on earth. By solving problems such as takeoff, landing, and orbiting safely, communications between teams in space and in mission control, and mitigating the effects of space flight on the human body, these solutions led to things we take for granted today. Satellite communications, weather forecasting, global positioning, lightweight materials, water purification, and computing technology were all made possible by the work of NASA in the 1960s. Col. Coleman used examples of some of her research work on her missions to illustrate how NASA continues to inform solutions to the problems we face today, such as growing food in adverse conditions and treating diseases such as cancer and osteoporosis.

As NASA works on its next great challenge, to send humans to Mars, Col. Coleman emphasized that people from all disciplines will be needed to work together to meet the goals of the mission. Scientists and mathematicians will be needed to understand the effects of outer orbit, designers will need to understand how materials behave in microgravity, and communications professionals will need to tell the story in ways that the government and general public can understand. She pointed out in many examples in the history of the space program that regular people make amazing things happen, and encouraged students to be among those people in the years to come. Col. Coleman’s lecture finished to enthusiastic applause, and she spent the last 20 minutes of class fielding a variety of questions from students.

Image Credit to Jediah Zuraw-Friedland