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Purdue Club hears high-flying stories of space and time

Saturday, October 27, 2012

After speaking to the Purdue Club of Putnam County Thursday evening at Autumn Glen, author John Norberg (left) signs a copy of his latest book for Ron Birt, president of the local club.
The fingerprints of Purdue University alumni are all over the history of aviation and aeronautics.

Their footprints have left an impression, too. No small steps for man or giant leaps of any kind without a Purdue education, it seems.

The Purdue impact on the space program is especially apparent on the moon where both the first man (Neil Armstrong) and the last man (Gene Cernan) to set foot on the lunar surface were Purdue grads.

Overall, 23 Purdue graduates have become astronauts, author John Norberg told the Putnam County Purdue Club Thursday night during its fall dinner at Autumn Glen in Greencastle.

Norberg, a 30-year journalist with the Lafayette Journal & Courier and author of books on Purdue history and achievements, said the link between Kitty Hawk, the moon and West Lafayette "is even better than you think."

"Students are still coming to Purdue wanting to be astronauts," noted Norberg. "It's an amazing history at Purdue."

Author of six books, including "Wings of Their Dreams: Purdue in Flight," which focuses on individuals who have contributed to Purdue's importance in aviation and space achievements, Norberg is pragmatic about it all.

"I'm not an engineer. I'm not a pilot. I'm just a writer," he said, "but I know a good story when I hear it."

One of the elements of that story is the date Dec. 17, 1903 -- the day Wilbur and Orville Wright opened up a new era of aviation to the world.

Showing a shot of the Wright Brothers' famous moment, Norberg commented, "We might as well have a picture of Christopher Columbus wading ashore in 1492."

Indiana shared in the Wright Brothers' success, he said, noting that although the brothers were claimed by Dayton, they grew up and went to high school in Richmond, Ind.

The bicycle chain used on their plane came from the Indianapolis Bicycle Chain Co., while Purdue engineering grad Clifford Turpin was one of their most famous early pilots, who demonstrated flight to people all across the country.

"Ohio stole this story from us," Norberg asserted. "They (the Wright Brothers) lived here first. Their parents were born here. They're Hoosiers.

"We need to take more credit for their story."

What makes both the achievements of both the Wright Brothers and Neil Armstrong even more amazing, Norberg said, is that man's first flight to his first steps on the moon took less than 66 years.

"That's amazing," allowed Norberg, a DePauw University graduate who began his newspaper career at The Brazil Times.

When Armstrong, Cernan, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee -- all later Mercury, Gemini or Apollo astronauts -- were students at Purdue, "the word 'astronaut' was not even part of the English language," Norberg noted.

Yet in the intervening 50-60 years of so, 37 percent of all manned space flights have had a Purdue graduate on board, Norberg said. Some even had two.

Astronaut and Purdue graduate Jerry Ross, the subject of Norberg's latest book, "Spacewalker," is history's most-launched space traveler.

In researching the book, Norberg listened intently to Ross describe the space shuttle launch. He noted that about a million parts comprise the elements of the shuttle and the launch pad, and most of them are rattling and shaking under the immense power of the engines that rocket the shuttle into space.

Ross told Norberg all he could think about while that was going on was that "every one of those parts was built by the lowest bidder."

"It takes eight-and-a-half minutes to get into space (after being launched)," Norberg said. "It took me over an hour to get from Purdue to Greencastle."

A communication manager at Purdue, Norberg showed a photo of Mars and asked club members to identify the location. It took a few seconds.

"This is a photo of Mars!" he stressed, momentarily disappointed in the audience reaction enough to add, "we've lost our 'wow' (factor). I mean, growing up, did you ever think you would see a photo of Mars? I can't even get a picture of my grandkids to come out clearly."

Showing another photo of Mars known as the "Chocolate Rock," Norberg predicted some day people will go to The Red Planet.

"It's just a matter of time, a matter of when," he said, adding that if Mars has chocolate bars as big as pictured, he wants to be "first in line to go."

Another part of the Purdue flight story, Norberg said is its aeronautical engineering program, started in 1925 as one of the first in the country.

One of its graduates is famed commercial pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who is best known for safely landing his US Airways jet in the Hudson River off Manhattan in January 2009.

Famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart joined the Purdue aviation department in 1935 as a visiting faculty member to counsel women on careers and help inspire others with her love for aviation.

Norberg showed a photo of Earhart with the Purdue--funded Lockheed Model 10 Electra she later flew during an ill-fated 1937 attempt to circumnavigate the globe. On July 2, 1937, Earhart disappeared near Howland Island over the central Pacific Ocean and her exact fate has remained a mystery to this day.

"Purdue put $80,000 into that plane," Norberg said. "Some day they may find that plane. They've been looking for it a long time.

"But when they find it, it's coming back to Purdue," he asserted. "We paid for it!"

Norberg also related how astronaut Armstrong ended up at Purdue after he appeared headed to MIT as one of the most-sought-after students in the country in 1945.

An avid football fan, Armstrong reportedly was in the stands at Columbus, Ohio, as Purdue and No. 1-ranked, unbeaten, and unscored-upon Ohio State squared off. He witnessed Purdue pull off a huge upset, winning 35-13, and decided he needed to take a closer look at going to school in West Lafayette.

The rest, of course, is space and Purdue history.

"The important message here," Norberg told the Putnam County Purdue Club, "is we need to beat Ohio State more often to bring more Neil Armstrongs to Purdue."

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