When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the capsule and stepped foot on the moon, it shaped the careers and lives of two Texas A&M professors who each spent 30 years with NASA and have accrued thousands of hours in space.
“I was 10 years old and distinctly remember rushing back from my swimming and diving meet — that was my sport — and as a big group, we all got together to watch the landing,” said Nancy Currie-Gregg, a professor of engineering practice at Texas A&M.
“I think for me it was a turning point, as it was for many Americans ... but the overwhelming sense that I had watching that — even as a 10-year-old — was this extreme pride in our nation to see the guys in the control center waving their flags to see the flag planted on the moon. I think at that point, I just felt a calling to always serve our nation in some capacity and to strive to do something to better our nation and perhaps the world.”
Though at first setting her sights on becoming a military pilot, she applied to become an astronaut and was selected on her second try in 1990.
“In retrospect, I’m fortunate that the internet didn’t exist then … so nobody ever told me that that wasn’t a possibility,” she said, “because even in 1969, there weren’t military pilots who were female, certainly weren’t any female astronauts. But nobody once told me that wasn’t something that I could achieve.”
During her 12 years as an astronaut, Currie-Gregg flew four space shuttle missions and spent more than 1,000 hours in space.
Her third mission — STS-88 — was actually the one that created the International Space Station as she controlled the robotic arm that connected the American and Russian segments.
“We say every mission is a good mission, but some are a little better than others. This definitely fell into that category,” she said. “To have a piece and literally be one of the first people to go into the space station, literally turning on the lights and have the commander make the call, ‘Houston, this is the International Space Station,’ was incredible. To me, I hate to say it, but that was kind of my moon landing.”
For former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, her interest in space began when she was 9 years old — 11 years before the moon landing — from reading science fiction stories of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.
Then, when Alan Shepard and John Glenn launched into space, she said, the nation got behind the space program.
“It really shaped my career goals, because I was growing up on a [cattle ranch] in eastern Washington state, and neither of my parents had been to college,” said Dunbar, a Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station research professor.
With a goal to fly in space and design spaceships, her physics teacher encouraged her to study engineering at the University of Washington.
She was home for the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college on July 20, 1969, and a group of fellow engineering students drove 50 miles to the nearest color TV to watch the first steps on the moon.
“It was great excitement,” she said. “Every night Walter Cronkite on CBS News would talk about where we were in the mission, so the whole world was watching it. We were just extremely excited,” she added.
More than the influence it had on her, Dunbar said, the Apollo 11 mission transformed science and technology.
“It’s why we have computers and satellites, for example, and it resulted in a large increase in the number of young people going into science and engineering, and this nation has not just benefited from the knowledge of what we learned about the moon, it’s benefited from the knowledge and productivity of all of the people like me that went into science and engineering careers.”
During her time as an astronaut, Dunbar flew five space shuttle missions and spent 50 total days in space.
Both called the experience of being in space indescribable.
“The night sky is just filled with these little points of light. Hubble Space Telescope does a good job of that, but there are billions and billions of stars and galaxies out there,” Dunbar said. “It’s really quite remarkable. Seeing that with your own eyes is hard to describe. You put all those things together — orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes, watching the continents go by, hoping you remember your geography so you know where you are … and you’re weightless sand that you can look out the window away from the Earth and see this immense universe with all its stars — it’s all pretty remarkable.”
All astronauts are trained in photography and videography, Currie-Gregg said, to capture those moments and images, but they do not do it justice.
“When you’re above [the atmosphere] and you look out, it’s just unbelievable the number of stars in the night sky that you see from space,” she said. “That is something, unfortunately, you cannot re-create, because everybody on this planet is going to be looking through the atmosphere.
Dunbar now works with students to create a next-generation spacesuit to allow humans to return to the moon again and then continue on to Mars.
“My students are looking at spacesuits that would not only work around the station, but also on the surface of the Moon and surface of Mars,” Dunbar said. “… There’s a lot of new technology that has to be developed, because a spacesuit is just like a small spacecraft. It has to protect you from vacuum, high temperatures, it has communication systems, life support systems. Think of it as just a human-shaped spaceship.”
There is still work to be done, but both Dunbar and Currie-Gregg are in support of those goals.
“It’s very exciting,” Dunbar said about the prospect of going to Mars. “I wish I were young enough to go to Mars.”