Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Throwback Thursday: KU Astronaut Edition

July 18th, 2019

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 34,800 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

As we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 – the first manned mission to land on the Moon – this week’s photograph features astronaut Ron Evans (1933-1990), a Kansas native who graduated from KU with a bachelor’s degree in 1955.

A Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, Evans was one of the nineteen astronauts selected by NASA in 1966. He served as a member of the astronaut support crews for the Apollo 7 and Apollo 11 flights and as backup Command Module Pilot for Apollo 14. Evans’ only space flight was as Command Module Pilot of Apollo 17. (It was during this December 1972 mission that the moon rock housed at Spencer Research Library was collected.)

Photograph of Astronaut Ron Evans presenting a memento carried to the moon, April 1973
Astronaut Ron Evans presenting a KU flag he carried to the moon during the Apollo 17 mission, April 1973. The plaque is inscribed “To the men and women of KU where I took my first steps toward the moon.” Lawrence Journal-World Photo Collection, University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG LJW P/ Ron Evans (Photos). Click image to enlarge.

During the Apollo 17 mission, Evans piloted the command module to the Moon. Once there, the lunar module separated from the command module and carried astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt to the Moon’s surface. Evans (and five mice) maintained lunar orbit while Cernan and Schmitt explored the Moon’s surface, setting records for the longest time in lunar orbit (almost 148 hours) and the number of lunar orbits (seventy-five). According to a NASA description of Apollo 17, Evans also conducted numerous scientific activities.

In addition to the panoramic camera, the mapping camera, and the laser altimeter (which were used on previous missions), three new experiments were included in the service module. An ultraviolet spectrometer measured lunar atmospheric density and composition, an infrared radiometer mapped the thermal characteristics of the Moon, and a lunar sounder acquired data on the subsurface structure.

Finally, Evans brought the astronauts back to Earth. While en route, he completed an hour-long spacewalk to retrieve film cassettes from the lunar sounder, mapping camera, and panoramic camera.

Evans returned to the KU campus in April 1973 to receive the university’s Distinguished Services Award, the highest honor given by the University of Kansas and the KU Alumni Association. (Kenneth and Helen Spencer were the first couple to receive the citation – in 1943 and 1968, respectively.) Evans also spoke a the Senior-Parent luncheon, an event for graduating seniors and their relatives. During the luncheon, Evans presented Chancellor Raymond Nichols with the plaque shown in the photograph above. The plaque was placed in the auditorium of Nichols Hall, which was then the space technology building on campus. The hall’s auditorium was renamed the Ron Evans Apollo Room.

A letter from Robert P. Ryan to Robert E. Foster, 1972
A letter from Robert E. Foster to Robert P. Ryan, 1972
One month before the Apollo 17 mission, KU alumnus Robert P. Ryan at NASA wrote to Robert E. Foster, KU’s Director of Bands, requesting a copy of KU fight songs. Ryan had “received permission to wake up Mr. Evans one morning with” one. Foster was able to provide the songs. Copies of letters in Ron Evans’ biographical file, University Archives. Click images to enlarge.

According to an account in the June 1973 issue of Kansas Alumni, Evans noted in his brief talk at the Senior-Parent luncheon that “I have come back to KU to redeem myself. One day during the flight, they played the Jayhawk fight song three or four times to wake me up and I didn’t hear it!”

An article entitled "Behind the Scenes in the Space Program," Kansas Alumni, March 1973
This article in the March 1973 issue of Kansas Alumni lists the names of KU alumni with known involvement in the space program during preparations for the Apollo 17 mission. Call Number: LH 1 .K3 G73. Click image to enlarge.

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services

Spencer Research Library: Home of Kansas’s Apollo 17 Moon Rock

July 17th, 2019

We have previously highlighted the oldest man-made item in Spencer’s collections: a cuneiform tablet that is more than 4,000 years old. You can visit the library and see the tablet on display in the library’s North Gallery exhibit.

But, did you know that there is one item in Spencer’s holdings that is even older than the cuneiform tablet? It’s a moon rock that is approximately 3.7 billion years old!

Photograph of the Kansas Apollo 17 lunar sample display, 1972
Kansas’s Apollo 17 lunar sample display, 1972. Robert Blackwell Docking Papers. Call Number: RH MS VLT 167. Click image to enlarge.

The rock was gathered during the December 1972 Apollo 17 mission, the last human expedition to the Moon. According to information from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum,

[Apollo 17] carried the only trained geologist to walk on the lunar surface, lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt. Compared to previous Apollo missions, Apollo 17 astronauts traversed the greatest distance using the Lunar Roving Vehicle and returned the greatest amount of rock and soil samples. Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, still holds the distinction of being the last man to walk on the Moon, as no humans have visited the Moon since December 14, 1972.

Specifically, according to a NASA description of the mission, the Apollo 17 astronauts “deployed or conducted ten science experiments, including the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) suite of instruments, took more than 2,000 photographs and collected about 243 pounds (110 kilograms) of soil and rock samples at twenty-two different sites.”

Photograph of the Kansas Apollo 17 lunar sample display, 1972
Photograph of the Kansas Apollo 17 lunar sample display, 1972
Close-ups of the lunar sample in Kansas’s Apollo 17 display. The 1.1 gram rock is encased in a small Lucite ball. Robert Blackwell Docking Papers. Call Number: RH MS VLT 167. Click image to enlarge. Click images to enlarge.

The moon rock now housed at Spencer was part of a larger sample gathered at the end of the third and final Extravehicular Activity (EVA) moonwalk on December 13-14, 1972. Here is what astronaut Eugene A. Cernan said as he collected the sample in the Taurus Littrow Valley. (The section below is excerpted from a transcription of the EVA-3 closeout at the archived Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal website. You can also watch footage of the sample being collected by clicking on the 169.41.46 video clip link; the section quoted below starts about a minute and a half into the footage.)

I think probably one of the most significant things we can think about when we think about Apollo is that it has opened for us – “for us” being the world – a challenge of the future. The door is now cracked, but the promise of the future lies in the young people, not just in America, but the young people all over the world learning to live and learning to work together. In order to remind all the people of the world in so many countries throughout the world that this is what we all are striving for in the future, Jack has picked up a very significant rock, typical of what we have here in the valley of Taurus-Littrow.

It’s a rock composed of many fragments, of many sizes, and many shapes, probably from all parts of the Moon, perhaps billions of years old. But fragments of all sizes and shapes – and even colors – that have grown together to become a cohesive rock, outlasting the nature of space, sort of living together in a very coherent, very peaceful manner. When we return this rock or some of the others like it to Houston, we’d like to share a piece of this rock with so many of the countries throughout the world. We hope that this will be a symbol of what our feelings are, what the feelings of the Apollo Program are, and a symbol of mankind: that we can live in peace and harmony in the future.

Photograph of the Kansas Apollo 17 lunar sample display, 1972
A close-up of the state flag on Kansas’s Apollo 17 lunar sample display. Robert Blackwell Docking Papers. Call Number: RH MS VLT 167. Click image to enlarge.

An article on the website Collect Space describes what happened to the larger moon rock when it arrived on Earth.

Three months after Apollo 17 returned home in December 1972, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered the distribution of fragments from the rock that Cernan and Schmitt collected, since labeled sample 70017, to 135 foreign heads of state, the fifty U.S. states and its provinces. Each rock, encased in an acrylic button, was mounted to a plaque with the intended recipient’s flag, also flown to the Moon.

Photograph of Kansas Governor Robert Docking with KU Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers at a basketball game, circa 1969-1972
Kansas Governor Robert Docking (right) with KU Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers (left) at a basketball game, circa 1969-1972. Lawrence Journal-World Photo Collection, University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG LJW P/ Robert Docking (Photos). Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

Kansas’s Apollo 17 moon rock is housed at Spencer as part of Robert Blackwell Docking’s papers. Docking was the governor of Kansas at the time of the Apollo 17 mission (1967-1974); he donated his papers to Spencer in 1975.

A similar lunar sample display was presented to each state after the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, the first manned mission to land on the Moon. You can see Kansas’s Apollo 11 moon rock on display at the Kansas Museum of History.

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services