Bruins in Space
Published Oct 1, 2009 8:00 AM
The year was 1961. Yuri Gagarin had just gone where no man had gone before and the United States was getting ready to send one of its own Mercury astronauts into space. Walt Cunningham, a Navy fighter pilot on reserve as he worked toward a doctorate in physics at UCLA, was jealous.
"I envied the hell out of them because they were going to be able to fly faster and higher than me," says Cunningham '60, M.S. '61.
On May 5, 1961, Cunningham was driving from his home in Van Nuys to work at the RAND Corporation. Heading south on the 405, the top down on his Porsche, Cunningham pulled onto the shoulder of the freeway to hear Alan Shepard shot into sub-orbit.
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"It got down to the 3-2-1 countdown and I heard this voicing screaming, 'you lucky son of a bitch,'" Cunningham recalls. "I got a little sheepish because I realized it was me yelling."
And that was pretty much the end of Cunningham's doctoral work. He settled for a master's degree and applied to work for NASA, which selected him in 1963 to be in its third group of astronauts — and launching a legacy of Bruin spacemen and women.
Cunningham was the lunar module pilot on the Apollo 7 flight. After the Apollo 1 burned up on the launching pad, killing its three-man crew, Cunningham and two others were assigned to fly the first manned Apollo mission. Theirs was the first engineering test flight, and they survived. Nine months later, and less than a century after the Wright Brothers built the first successful airplane, man would land on the moon.
Watching the Skies in Westwood
There is something magical about exploring the Final Frontier and for more almost 50 years, a cadre of UCLA students have been at the forefront.
Maybe it's Los Angeles' creative spirit or Westwood's proximity to the aerospace industry, Rocketdyne and Jet Propulsion Laboratory; maybe it's all those professors who have led unmanned space missions; maybe there's just something in the water. But since Cunningham became the first Bruin to escape Earth's orbit in 1968, six others have flown into space — two this year alone.
"A lot of people who have been involved with UCLA have been involved in the space-exploration business, whether it is manned or unmanned," says Rep. Ken Calvert, a California Republican who, until recently moving to the House Appropriations Committee, was chairman of the Science Committee's Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. "We could go on and on. I can't think of many universities that have more of a connection with NASA."
The eight Bruin astronauts have been a distinguished bunch. The first selected by NASA was Elliot See Jr., M.S. '62, who would have beaten Cunningham into space by two years if he hadn't died in a plane crash in early 1966.
Four of the high fliers attended UCLA as undergraduates; seven earned masters' degrees here and three received doctorates, including one in medicine. Some trained long to become astronauts and others were fortunate enough to be qualified when NASA was in need of new blood. Some waited more than a decade to be selected, while others were accepted shortly after turning in their application.
The roster, from earliest to most recent, includes See; Cunningham; Vance Brand, M.B.A. '64; Story Musgrave, M.B.A. '59; Taylor Wang '67, M.S. '68, Ph.D. '71; Anna Lee Fisher '71, M.S. '72, M.D. '76; John Phillips, Ph.D. '87; and K. Megan McArthur '93.
This elite eight worked on the Apollo missions and on the creation of the Skylab, on the Challenger missions and the construction of the International Space Station. Phillips returned from a two-week trip to the Space Station in March and a month and half later McArthur took off for the Hubble Telescope.
All together, Bruin astronauts have escaped Earth's atmosphere 17 times and spent 327 days in space.