The father of America’s human-spaceflight program was born in Nashwauk, Minn., on Oct. 8, 1913. It’s unlikely anyone in Nashwauk or Duluth, where Robert Gilruth went to high school, imagined the impact this unassuming young man would have on the world. His International Space Hall of Fame write-up notes: “Although not an exceptional student, Robert excelled at building model airplanes.”
Encouraged by parents who were teachers, Gilruth earned degrees in aeronautical engineering from the University of Minnesota. The nationally recognized program there, founded by visionary scientist and engineer Prof. John Akerman, provided an opportunity to study with iconic pioneers such as Jean and Jeannette Piccard. Gilruth took this experience to Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
In 1958, when NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Gilruth was named head of its Space Task Group, charged with putting a man into space before the Soviet Union did. But when the Soviet Union beat the United States into space with the one-orbit flight of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union was seen as the technology leader. American Alan Shepard made a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961.
Gilruth’s counsel to President John Kennedy, who wanted to regain leadership, was to do something that required “a great big rocket — like going to the moon.”
Kennedy’s challenge to Congress on May 25, 1961 — to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out — set in motion what has been called the most audacious engineering challenge in history. Gilruth built the Manned Spacecraft (now Johnson) Center in Houston, led the Apollo program and oversaw 25 manned spaceflights.
The world watched on July 20, 1969, as the Apollo 11 crew walked on the moon and later when lunar rovers traversed the moon’s surface.
On the centenary of Gilruth’s birth, AirSpace Minnesota recalls his impact while looking to the future. This new nonprofit organization’s charter is to inspire students to embrace skills and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by showcasing role models from Minnesota’s great aviation and aerospace legacy, and among today’s practitioners. Around the state, AirSpace Minnesota is seeking volunteers willing to speak in schools and offer workplace tours to students and educators while bringing new education assets to the region. Gilruth’s story reminds us of what happens when people unite to support a bold vision and rallies us to ensure that the next generation is likewise inspired to dream big, work hard and go boldly.
Why is this essential to Minnesota’s future?
• The unique power of flight to spark imaginations is at the heart of the human experience, core to exploration of our place in the universe and expressed for centuries in art, music and literature. For students to do the work necessary to gain the skills they need and to persevere on their journey, they need powerful dreams.
• Aerospace and aviation have been essential to our past and will be even more important to our future. This industry has changed the way we live, work, travel and communicate via innovations including direct-to-home television broadcast, GPS navigation satellites, the jet engine, new materials, radar, space flight and supersonic flight. Human connections, humanitarian causes, commerce and national security all are enabled by this technology.
• Even as government budgets are cut, demand is growing for skilled workers to support biotechnology, cybersecurity, materials science, unmanned aerial vehicles and an expected global airline fleet of 40,000 airplanes in the next 20 years. In commercial aviation, more than 1 million airplane pilots and mechanics will be needed, an average of 23,000 new pilots and 32,500 new mechanics every year until 2030.
• Preparation for this work provides learners with the building blocks to access many STEM-related fields, which will grow the region’s skilled workforce.
In typical Minnesota fashion, Bob Gilruth never sought fame. The best way to honor his legacy would be to help students see what happens when dreams and skills connect.
Dale Klapmeier is the cofounder and CEO of Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth and board chair of AirSpace Minnesota.