By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2019, The Oklahoman
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — the NASA mission that made Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin the first human beings to walk on a planetary body that wasn’t Earth.
Of all the Apollo 11 lore, one of my favorite stories is that Armstrong and Aldrin were supposedly scheduled to sleep between the Eagle’s landing and their historic first walk. Instead, at their request, sleep was postponed, so they could get right to exploring the moon.
Imagine the eagerness and excitement those astronauts shared — and they aren’t the only ones.
From President John Kennedy’s audacious moon landing challenge in 1961 to today’s Orion spacecraft that is being built to take humans farther into space than we have ever gone before, space travel excites and inspires all kinds of people everywhere — girls and boys, artists and scientists, young people and adults.
In 1989, NASA established the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program (also known as Space Grant) to tap into that enthusiasm.
Space Grant, a national network of colleges and universities and other affiliates with programs in all 50 states, funds scholarships, fellowships, curriculum materials and faculty development. The idea is that NASA wants to use people’s enthusiasm for space travel to entice students to develop the education and skills that they need to work in the space industry.
“The program in Oklahoma is one of the best that NASA has,” said Mike Ridgway, Director of Engineering and Programs at Frontier Electronic Systems, a family-owned Oklahoma firm with years of experience in the space business. The 16 Oklahoma affiliates include 10 academic institutions as well as affiliates from industry and other entities.
“The folks in Oklahoma took Space Grant on and did things to make it a standout,” Ridgway said. “It gives elementary teachers additional skills and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming so they can teach in ways that inspire their students to succeed and to consider continuing higher education in STEM areas.”
Frontier Electronic Systems has been involved with the NASA Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium since 2000. For the past 15 years, Space Grant has funded Frontier to hire more than 25 summer engineering interns. Several of the interns have been hired by Frontier after they completed their degrees.
“The fact that we’ve been able to work on manned space flight at Frontier makes work fun for the interns and fun for us,” Ridgway said. “While the things we are doing are difficult, they are really important to the astronauts. It’s the heart and soul of our work, to help assure that those astronauts can perform their missions and return home.”
If you were around in 1969, you likely remember exactly where you were when Neil Armstrong took that “one small step for (a) man and one giant leap for mankind.”
There will be another NASA moment like that — perhaps when humans travel into deep space or when astronauts land on Mars. There are Oklahomans today who are or will be part of NASA’s next achievement, and that’s exciting.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at [email protected].