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One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Alabama Higher Ed

50 years ago, the world changed when Neil Armstrong took his “one small step.” Some call the Apollo 11 moon landing mission the technology event of the decade - or even the century. It inspires national American pride, but it means something even more special for Alabama. Huntsville, AL is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center, one location where NASA and the Aerospace engineering sector thrives.

Alabama colleges and universities are in no small part to thank for this success, as it was these universities who prepared key contributors for the missions and attract talent to the area. Read on to explore the history of higher education and our space program.

The Contribution of Alabama Colleges and Universities to the Moon Landing

Before Apollo 11 took us to the moon, Wernher Von Braun took us, well, to space. Wernher Von Braun, brought to America from Nazi Germany in World War II, is known to most as the father of modern rocket science. He and his team brought the booming superpower that is Redstone Arsenal and the Marshall Space Flight Center to Huntsville. To do so, he needed a strong base of higher education. So much so, that he took it upon himself to advocate for Alabama Higher Education to the state legislature in June of 1961, with a speech so compelling that the University of Alabama in Huntsville was funded to change from a small “center” to the high-tech research power we know today.

That’s just the beginning of Alabama universities’ influence on the Moon landing and the space program. Universities across the state boast significant contributions both historically and in the present.

A graduate of what is now the University of North Alabama in Florence, AL, Billie Robertson calculated the thrust of rocket engines and developed the manual for computer models related to launches for the Apollo missions, among others. James L. Jennings, a graduate of Alabama A&M and the University of Alabama, began working at Marshall Space Flight Center just two years before the moon landing and later became the Deputy Director of the Kennedy Space Flight Center and, then, an Associate Administrator at NASA headquarters. Furthermore, a total of 6 former astronauts have graduated from Auburn. That’s more than any other university in the world!

Alabama Universities Continue to Stay on the Forefront of Space

Auburn and Alabama collaborate with NASA through the Space Act Agreement. Students in Alabama’s STEM to MBA program are working to enhance propulsion mechanisms for satellites, while students at Auburn explore how wireless technology can be used from space.

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, engineering researchers contributed to the success of the International Space Station (ISS) by having a record of 17 payloads aboard the ISS. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of South Alabama have recently received a grant from NASA to study the use of ionic liquids as fuel to be used in the ISS and in future missions to Mars.

Paving the Way to Elevated Success

Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile - all locations home to one of our public universities - have all been recognized by varying publications for their emphasis on growing technology industries through job recruitment. Additionally, in the most recent legislative session, the Alabama Incentives Modernization Act (HB 540) created economic incentives for high-tech companies to come to Alabama, bringing more jobs and raising the economic ability of the state.

However, to fully attract those jobs, we must be able to fill them. High-tech jobs require high-level education. In fact, all the jobs in NASA’s Aerospace Technology sector require at least a Bachelor’s degree. This sector isn’t alone in this trend. In fact, across the United States, job opportunities are expected to increase for all fields requiring a Bachelor’s degree or higher, with those that require a Master’s degree expected to grow the most, at 14 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to research from the Southern Region Education Board (SREB).

To truly become leaders in the Aerospace and Technology sector we must also incentivize higher education. It is not enough to simply create jobs, we must also prepare our young people to fill them. To do this, we must close the gap in appropriations for Higher Education institutions, providing every young person the opportunity to attend a university at an affordable cost and develop the skills necessary to push our economy forward.

Neil Armstrong and the moon landing were merely the beginning of this journey. One small step for Alabama universities will create a giant leap for the Alabama economy, but it’s up to us to advocate for higher education. Wernher Von Braun said it best in his legislative address on June 20, 1961:

“Let’s be honest with ourselves about it: it’s not water, or real estate, or labor, or power, or cheap taxes that bring industry to a state or city. It’s brainpower. (...) Right now you could run a profitable electronics firm on the moon if the company liked the climate. Educational climate, that is.

Without question, such a climate is the most important single resource in attracting new people and new ideas. It’s a self-generating process. Once you get it started, it snowballs… When a prospective employee looks at us he does not try to decide whether to live in Huntsville or Montgomery, he is choosing between Alabama and Los Angeles, New York or Boston. It is your decision whether you want to make Alabama attractive enough to stay in this race.”


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