It’s been 50 years since man first stepped foot on the moon, but Pablo de León remembers it like it was yesterday.
Now a professor at UND and a leader in space science in Argentina and the United States, de León was sitting in front of a small black-and-white television at his family’s farm in Argentina. He watched as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon’s surface.
It started a love of space for him and for many others.
“It inspired me to choose to work in the space field,” he said.
The work to make that moment happen has been written about extensively from research papers and books to documentaries and movies. That includes the work of UND alum John Disher.
Disher, a North Dakota native who graduated from UND in 1943 with a mechanical engineering degree, helped get the mission done by the end of the 1960s, the deadline set by President John F. Kennedy.
Disher was born in Olmstead, but lived much of his life in Devils Lake, according to his son, John, who owns a recording studio in San Francisco.
Disher began his career in 1943 with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Ohio, a committee that pre-dates NASA. There, he was head of the flight research section. After NASA was formed in 1958, Disher would go on to work for its headquarters.
As a space scientist, he helped organize the Mercury and Gemini manned space flight programs in the late 1950s and 1960s. In the position of project director, he headed the Apollo Lunar Landing Program producing the initial studies of the Apollo program, which resulted in the first manned lunar landing in 1969.
Tom Disher said his father had a way of solving problems in unique ways, which lent itself well to his career. But his father was also kind and hardworking, traits he learned growing up in Devils Lake.
“My dad was a genius, but he was also really friendly and unassuming and helpful,” Tom Disher said. “At his funeral, there were half a dozen people that all had a story about how their car had broken down and my dad had to come and help them. … That’s the kind of guy he was. He worked a lot of hours, especially as things started going up into space, but whenever he was home he was always a great dad and consistently cheerful and helpful.”
Tom Disher and his mother and brother watched from the grandstands as Apollo 11 took off from Kennedy Space Center, while his father was in the bunker.
“Watching it take off was just mind blowing,” Tom Disher said. “Just to think that my dad had been talking about this and doing this for years, it was just overwhelming. It was just one thing to know it was going to happen, but it was just amazing to see it. It really just emphasized my dad’s can-do attitude.”
When the astronauts took their first steps onto the moon, the Dishers watched on a television in a motel in North Carolina. One of those astronauts, Buzz Aldrin, would later help organize UND’s space education program in 1972 through his connection with John Odegard, the former dean of the School of Aerospace Sciences.
After Apollo, Disher went on to become deputy director of NASA’s Skylab program, helping launch America’s first space station in 1973. He also led NASA’s advanced manned space flight programs.
Following his retirement from NASA in 1980, Disher formed a company, Avanti Systems, and became an aerospace consultant.
He was presented with UND’s Sioux Award in 1974 and he served on the UND School of Engineering and Mines Advisory Council from 1986 until his death in 1988.
Disher also received a number of honors from NASA and other organizations. He was awarded the Collier Trophy for his work with the Skylab program, an honor presented annually by the National Aeronautic Association for the greatest U.S. achievement in aeronautics or astronautics. Disher also received two NASA Exceptional Service medals, one in 1969 and the other in 1980.
UND now has a strong research relationship with NASA.
UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory, which was formed 15 years ago, focuses on the research, design and production of spacesuit and habitat prototypes. UND is the first university with a NASA-funded laboratory dedicated to designing and constructing space-exploration and planetary surface exploration suits. Pieces of fabric from the UND-developed NDX-1 spacesuit were launched into space earlier this year to go to the International Space Station.
UND is also the first university with two fully operational spaceflight simulators. The simulators, which are part of the Human Spaceflight Laboratory initiative, are based on real-life models. The first simulator is based on NASA’s Apollo capsule, while the other is a mock-up of SpaceShip One, the world’s first privately owned, successful suborbital space vehicle, according to the lab’s website.
De León has been a leader on the UND campus with the human spaceflight laboratory and has devoted three decades of his life to space science and engineering.
His work has been a dream come true for him, he said.
“I’m very, very happy to do this from UND, which gave me the possibility of developing all of these amazing projects and work with NASA on this goal of a new era of human spaceflight,” he said. “The connection, to me personally, between the 50th anniversary and the things we are doing now is very palpable.”
Pieces of fabric from the University of North Dakota-developed NDX-1 spacesuit were launched into space aboard a Northrop Grumman “NG CRS-11 Cygnus” Resupply Mission, on Wednesday, on its way to the International Space Station (ISS).