Florida Tech and Apollo, 50 Years Later

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On this date 50 years ago, the world changed as Apollo 11 rocketed toward the moon. The Eagle module would reach the lunar surface four days later, on July 20, making reality what was once only a dream.

For those on Florida’s Space Coast, this anniversary is particularly significant due to NASA’s deep connections with the area.

But the program also resonates deeply with Florida Tech.

Florida Tech was founded as a “night school for missilemen,” and the university and NASA have a rich history of collaboration. Wernher von Braun, NASA engineering program manager and chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that powered the Apollo 11 mission, even once delivered a commencement address at the university.

Just as Florida Tech founder Jerome Keuper brought creativity and innovation to higher learning, the scientists and engineers behind Apollo 11 pushed the boundaries of both space travel and the technology that made it possible.

“There was a drive to find better, more efficient and safer ways of engineering spacecraft,” said historian Robert Taylor, associate dean and Florida Tech’s School of Arts and Communication, the mission also saw a change in spacecraft. “The Apollo 1 tragedy, which hit the Space Coast very hard, every person who worked in that program, knew there were human lives on the line.”

Apollo 11’s success was also a major victory in the space race between the United States and the then-Soviet Union, a race that led to a different route to reach the moon first.

“The Cold War pushed this, that’s why we had to do this so fast,” Taylor said. “If you think about it, if we hadn’t had the imperative of the Cold War, the first thing you build is the space shuttle, then you build the space station, then you go to the moon.”

For Taylor, the most important part of the Apollo 11 mission was the display of talent, ability and determination to achieve something never done before.

“What Apollo did was kind of blaze the trail,” he said. “It showed people, I think, what was possible if you get the right people together, with the right skills and resources. You can do amazing things.”

As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Taylor sees Florida Tech playing an important part in the future of spaceflight, much like five decades ago.

“Students on this campus, when you talk to them about going to Mars, they’re serious,” he said. “When Americans return to space, Sunita Williams, a Florida Tech graduate, will be one of the primary pilots. We’ve always been there, and we’ve kind of been a booster because of the caliber of our students and the excitement they get from the faculty and the administration about how important this is.”

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I write and record video about research at Florida Tech. For any inquiries, contact me at 321-674-8937 or rrandall@fit.edu.

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