Good morning and welcome to Georgia Tech. I want to extend a special welcome to the more than 60 students from 39 institutions who have joined us today. We feel privileged to host them on our campus and to be able to honor the contributions of men and women from the U.S. and around the world who have dedicated their careers to the success of space missions in the Shuttle era. Many of you are here today, and we give you a hero’s welcome.
As we celebrate the Shuttle era, it is appropriate that we look back to the beginning of the space program in the U.S., and look ahead at the possibilities for the future. I have been fortunate to live through the U.S. Space Program – I remember sitting in my neighbors backyard in 1958, watching Sputnik pass overhead, and many of the earliest space missions.
Last month marked the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s special address before Congress, on the importance of the space program. While the U.S. had taken pride in being the most technologically advanced nation, it was the Soviet Union that first sent a satellite into Earth’s orbit and, four years later, the first human into space.
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy challenged our country to, “within the decade, land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.” What ensued was a collaborative effort between scientists and engineers — engaging government, industry and education — to bring that dream to reality. And on July 21, 1969 many of us remember of sitting or standing in front of our television sets with 500 million people worldwide and watching Neil Armstrong take that first step on the moon’s surface, pronouncing “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
That accomplishment became symbolic of the power of American ingenuity. The saying became “If we can land a man on the moon – dot-dot-dot, fill in the blank.” I believe that this “can do attitude” is as true today as it was 50 years ago.
In 1961 I don’t think the average person could imagine a ship that would shuttle people back and forth to various locations in space, or even an international space station. But NASA does not have “average people,” and neither do our research institutions like Georgia Tech. We can include partners from industry and the Department of Defense in that category. They are people of vision, who know how to collaborate to combine engineering and innovation with that vision to make things that once were considered science fiction a reality. Then, they work to pass that vision on to the next generation.
I have had the privilege of working in higher education throughout my career, in an environment that challenges students, as well as faculty and staff who design, dream and envision possibilities. I spent 1981 and 1982 as a visiting research scientist at NASA-Johnson Space Center in Houston. I learned a great deal, but the most important thing I took from that experience was inspiration.
While I was there, Astronaut John Young served as commander of the first space shuttle mission. An honors graduate from Georgia Tech’s School of Aeronautical Engineering, he devoted his career to NASA before retiring just six years ago. He continues to advocate the development of technologies that will allow us to live and work on the moon and Mars.
Another Georgia Tech graduate, Eric Boe, was selected to pilot Discovery for one of the last space shuttle flights this spring, 30 years after the first space shuttle mission. The crew delivered a permanent, multipurpose logistics module to the International Space Station, and conducted two space walks during their two-week mission. They also delivered Robonaut 2, or R2, a human-like robot, to be a permanent resident of the space station. And, just because they were in space, don’t think that they didn’t have challenges finding a parking space. Most of those were already taken by a European freighter that arrived the day before, joining Japanese and Russian cargo ships and two Soyuz crew capsules. I believe they took a photo of all of the vehicles together, because it is symbolic of the countries working together in an international orbiting laboratory.
A couple of years ago, Eric Boe visited with students on the Tech campus. They asked him what inspired him to enter the space program. He said, “I remember my parents calling me in when I was five to watch the moon landing and watching it on a black and white TV. I just kept thinking about it, and as time went on and my career progressed, I kept going, 'I still have the opportunity to do this. I think I'll apply.' And I was lucky enough to get accepted."
Yet another Georgia Tech-educated astronaut, Sandra Mangus, will join the last Shuttle flight as mission specialist later this month. Unlike Eric, the young people watching this last Shuttle flight take off won’t be seeing it on a black and white TV. They’ll probably see it on their I-phones or laptops, and will text and tweet. But the spirit of innovation and the desire to explore are timeless.
We are proud that Georgia Tech people have been involved with the Shuttle program from beginning to end. But it doesn’t end here; there are more frontiers before us. Together, we have the ability to explore those frontiers. In this room we have leaders from the aerospace industry, space shuttle commanders and astronauts, other NASA leaders, scientists from around the world, and college students. The task before us is to educate and inspire the next generation of leaders and experts to make lasting contributions to our nation's space program.
Thank you for joining us today, and thank you for your collective contributions to the greatest space program in the world and perhaps one of the greatest adventures of mankind!