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Apollo 11 astronaut helped establish UND program

Anyone more than a few years old at the time can probably recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they witnessed an iconic American moment take place on live TV -- the first human voyage to the surface of the moon.

Anyone more than a few years old at the time can probably recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they witnessed an iconic American moment take place on live TV -- the first human voyage to the surface of the moon.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin's walk on the moon that was watched by an estimated 600 million people around the world.

But Aldrin's contribution to space exploration isn't only limited to his time as a NASA astronaut. In the 1980s, he helped to establish UND's Space Studies program that continues to offer a unique education for future space explorers and researchers.

Changing times

John D. Odegard invited Aldrin to visit campus and help pave the way for a space education program. Odegard wanted to put together a space-related program similar to the aviation school he helped found in 1968.

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Aldrin recommended a member of the 1985-1986 Presidential Commission on Space, David Webb, to establish the program. Webb would serve as the first chair of the department when it was launched in 1987.

David Whalen, current chair, said the Space Studies program only had a total of four faculty members when it was launched. Most of the students initially came from Grand Forks Air Force Base and were crew members manning the Minuteman silos across the state.

Even from the beginning, the program's approach was much broader than other space education programs in the country. Whalen said it was becoming clear in the mid-1970s that manned spaceflight wasn't going to be the predominant space industry like it had been during the Apollo program.

He said the problem was the conflicting schools of thought about space -- engineers only worked to create new spacecraft and satellite technology, while scientists only wanted to see money go toward exploration and research.

"They had infinite trouble understanding the politics and economics of space and history of what went before them," Whalen said.

A broad education

Instead of fully training graduates in one small aspect of space, these students would leave with a general overview that would allow them to be realistic about the costs and issues involved with future ventures and usages of space.

"In some sense, space policy is what the program is about," Whalen said. "Everybody should understand the politics of space and to understand it, you have to understand the mechanics, the science, the understanding and the history."

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The Space Studies program was the first interdisciplinary space program in the world. Whalen said even 22 years later, there is only one similar program, the International Space University, which has the same goal but a different educational style.

Assistant professor Ron Fevig is a new faculty member but has known about UND's unique approach for a long time. He heard about the program in the early 1990s, enrolled and then graduated in 1994.

He now teaches orbital mechanics, which deals with the mathematics and physics of orbiting objects and describes the trajectory of objects such as satellites. Fevig also teaches space mission design, a field that looks at construction of spacecraft and the operation of vehicles once they're in orbit.

He said graduates leave with a broad education that helps them prepare for a variety of space-related jobs, such as policy-making roles or the commercial implications of space such as the usage of satellites.

"They're very well-rounded, in the knowledge of not just science and engineering but also policy, business and history," Fevig said.

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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