CHESTER — The date below the Delaware County Daily Times’ flag proclaimed it to be “Moonday, July 21, 1969,” as 2-inch red headline type proclaiming “WE’RE ON THE MOON” beckoned readers to learn the details behind Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon broadcast to the world the night before.
Aerospace was familiar to some of the Times readers receiving the “Moonday” edition, as the 1960s saw Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.’s produced the nation’s largest rocket test chamber for Aerojet General and Boeing Vertol made innovations in the helicopter industry. As the Times was delivered that Monday afternoon, a recent high school graduate roughly 1,000 miles away from Delaware County’s industrial riverfront was finishing a shift in an automotive spring factory, determined to land a career in the space sciences after the previous night’s broadcast. That career path would lead him to Chester and four decades in higher education.
“It inspired me and others at the time to pursue careers in space science,” said Harry J. Augensen, Ph.D., professor of physics and astronomy at Widener University and director of the university observatory, during an interview at his Kirkbride Hall office. “I had already decided to go into the field of astronomy and astrophysics, but this was something that cemented my career path – I knew this was going to be a frontier.”
The moon landing capped the space race that Augensen had followed closely during his youth in rural northern Illinois. Tracking the major developments of the space program throughout the decade, the landing’s broader importance did not hit Augensen while watching it at the farmhouse of a fellow science-enthusiast friend from high school.
“It didn’t sink in at the time that history was being made,” he said. “It was fascinating and inspirational, but I didn’t think I’d be doing interviews 50 years later about watching it with my farm-boy friend, and talking about watching it at home late into the night – I had to get to work at 7:30 the next morning.”
Looking back 50 years later, Augusen spoke “in awe” of the efficiency behind the Apollo 11 landing – with its inter-disciplinary team of America’s best in science and engineering joined by international counterparts – after the death of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in the 1967 Apollo 1 disaster.
“We didn’t give up. It could of have been the end of the program,” he said. “But we had a mandate from President Kennedy … people wanted to cut the budget, but you don’t touch the legacy of a dead president.”
Augensen’s entrance to primary school coincided with Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957.
“I do remember that – a lot of people were scared,” he said, recounting the general public’s fear of an attack from the satellite and the scientific community’s frustration at being bested by their Russian counterparts.
“One of my professors in graduate school was working at the Smithsonian (at the time of the Sputnik launch),” Augensen said. With the professor the last person in his office the evening of the launch, a Friday, “he got a call, ‘would you care to comment on the Russia launch of the Sputnik 1?,’” said Augensen. “He said his stomach was in knots … just paralyzed. They had beaten us and nobody saw it coming.”
Augensen credited his primary and high schools with fulfilling the mandate on scientific education that came with the start of the space race. “It was… in a rural area, but there was a strong emphasis on learning science and mathematics. We were caught up in that wave,” he said.
Augensen’s classmate whom he joined to watch the moon landing went on to become a research biochemist, while future University of Pennsylvania Department of Physics and Astronomy Chair Paul Langacker, Ph.D., graduated five years ahead of them.
Part of the science curriculum meant wheeling in television sets to classrooms for watching the pre-Apollo program launches.
“The reception was terrible but you could see the launch, the astronauts – that was our indoctrination into the space sciences,” he said.
Augensen also benefited from the popular media of time in finding inspiration for his future field.
“There were some lunar landings in the mid- to late- ‘60s that took pictures… they were pretty detailed,” he said, finding the lunar photos in “Life” and “Look” magazines along with the less-detailed pictures of Mars’ surface from the 1965 Mariner 4 fly-by.
“At the time there were a number of science fiction shows about space – ‘Lost in Space,’ ‘Star Trek,’ the ‘Twilight Zone’ had a lot of episodes about space,” he said. “Even thought that was not serious stuff, it was the type of stuff that you would use to be inspired … some aspects of it were scientifically accurate.”
Preparing to attend Elmhurst College in the western suburbs of Chicago, Augensen took a factory job for the summer, dealing mostly in automotive brake springs. “I can’t tell you all the hazardous chemicals I was exposed to. I didn’t mind doing it, except that I was breathing in all this polluted air,” he said.
The job’s occupational hazards furthered Augensen’s academic motivations he had felt from seeing his parents’ work lives. “My mother worked nights in a factory; my father worked in a factory. Factory work was my destiny if I didn’t get my act together in school,” he said.
Augensen went on from Elmhurst to complete his doctorate at Northwestern University, teaching at Northwestern for two years before arriving at Widener in 1982. He continues to use the spirit of the space race as a motivator for his students. “It showed that ventures such as this require teamwork,” he said. “They pulled together the best people from all over – engineers, chemists, even biologists for the stress that the astronauts would be subjected to. Two or three people who are brilliant can’t do anything (but) speculate.”
For the future of crewed landings in the space program without the motivation of the Cold War, Augensen sees a moon base and travel to Mars as new contenders for national pride. “I think that building a base on the moon would be a big project; we’re talking about it now. That will be a starting point to the outer planets, to Mars,” he said.
“I think that (national pride) would be most of the case to go to Mars – our politicians are talking about it,” he said. “But we’ll get some science out of it, and who knows what we may find,” he said, referencing the extensive boost to the computer and plastics fields from the technology developed for the Apollo program, regardless of the program’s political motivations.
Lunar travel remains an expensive and risky endeavor, however. “If it were easy, we’d be doing it routinely now,” he said, noting the greater risk of interplanetary travel. “People have to understand that the travel to the moon by present technology takes about two-and-a-half to three days – a Mars mission is about eight months. That’s very expensive for life support,” he said.
Widener hosts moon event
The Widener University Observatory will host a Moon-Viewing Night from 8:45-10 p.m. Monday, July 15, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Guests will be able to view the moon, as well as Jupiter and Saturn in Widener’s telescope.
The observatory is located in the fifth floor of Kirkbride Hall, 17th and Walnut streets, Chester. Rain date is Tuesday, July 16. To register, contact Carol Rufo by email at email@example.com with the subject line “Lunar Landing Event” or by phone at 610-499-4002.