Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Throwback Thursday: KU Astronaut Edition

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

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