From UTD to the Moon and Beyond: 50 Years and Counting
Connections to Apollo Missions Helped University Take Giant Leap Forward

UT Dallas researchers built a mass spectrometer to detect and determine the composition of the moon’s atmosphere. The instrument (lower right), shown on the lunar surface during the Apollo 17 mission, also accompanied Apollo 15 and 16. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of two milestones that are inextricably linked: the first landing of men on the moon and the genesis of The University of Texas at Dallas.

Researchers at UT Dallas’ precursor institution — the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies — contributed significantly to the U.S. space program, from training Apollo astronauts on what to look for in lunar geology to designing space-based instruments to alert the early astronauts to radiation hazards.

It is work that has continued throughout UT Dallas’ history, including a recent project to digitize and analyze archived audiotapes from all of Apollo 11 and most of the Apollo 1, Apollo 13 and Gemini 8 missions.    

The Moon and UTD

Dr. John Hoffman, professor emeritus of physics, discusses the role space sciences played at the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, the precursor institution of UT Dallas. If you don’t hear the audio, listen to his comments on Vimeo.

In the early 1960s, the founders of Texas Instruments established a research institution in North Texas called the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest, later renamed the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies (SCAS). Its purpose was to attract scholars and scientists to the region to conduct fundamental research and provide graduate-level education in science and mathematics.

On Sept. 1, 1969, SCAS became The University of Texas at Dallas.

But were it not for the U.S. space program, the University might never have been born.

Research related to space sciences comprised a large part of SCAS’ work in the early days. Dr. Francis “Frank” Johnson, an expert on the Earth’s upper atmosphere, was recruited in 1962 to lead the center’s research program in space and atmospheric physics. He had been asked by NASA to design experiments that could detect the existence of a lunar atmosphere in preparation for the first manned lunar landing in 1969.

Johnson devised a 3-pound, cold cathode ionization gauge that tested for atmospheric pressure on the moon. His invention flew on Apollo flights 12, 14 and 15 as part of the scientific instrument package that the astronauts deployed on the lunar surface.

Other connections between UT Dallas’ early days and the Apollo program include:

  • Dr. James Carter, professor emeritus of geosciences, joined SCAS in 1964 as a postdoctoral researcher. With expertise in geology, he traveled to New Mexico to help train Apollo astronauts in what to look for once they landed on the moon. “No one had a firm idea what the astronauts would find on the moon, so we gave them a broad field research experience over a couple of days,” he recalled. “They were remarkable people.” When the lunar samples arrived, Carter was among the scientists who analyzed them and characterized their properties.
  • SCAS faculty members designed a cosmic-ray experiment that was carried on Explorer 41, a satellite that provided real-time data on radiation hazards to Apollo 11 astronauts during their mission.
  • Dr. John Hoffman, who joined SCAS in 1966 and is a UT Dallas professor emeritus of physics, built scientific instruments for satellites, planetary missions and other space probes throughout his career. His instruments to detect and determine the composition of the lunar atmosphere accompanied the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions to the moon. He also developed instruments for the Pioneer mission to Venus in 1978 and the landmark Phoenix mission to Mars in 2008. His work provided key data to prove the existence of water on Mars and important clues about the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate history.

Johnson served as the first acting president of UT Dallas until 1971. In a 2009 interview, shortly before his death that year, he said that without SCAS’ focus on the space sciences and the reliable NASA funds that followed, UT Dallas might never have come about. The fledgling center’s space sciences efforts were largely supported by stable grants, but other research areas at SCAS, such as geosciences and molecular biology, depended on more vulnerable funding.

“[The center] was proving more costly than private philanthropy could support,” he said. “That’s one of the things that led to the realization that the only way to preserve the institution was to bring in state support.”

That meant joining the UT System as The University of Texas at Dallas.

Tradition Continues

Dr. Rod Heelis, director of the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences, talks about the impact Apollo 11 had on his career. If you don’t hear the audio, listen to his comments on Vimeo.

Dr. Rod Heelis, director of the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences and the Distinguished Chair in Natural Sciences and Mathematics, joined the UT Dallas faculty in 1973. An expert in space weather and the physics of the Earth’s ionosphere, he and his colleagues designed and built multiple instruments that have flown — and are currently flying — on satellites to collect data about this region of the upper atmosphere, where disturbances can disrupt GPS signals and wreak havoc on navigation systems.

“Our research focus has tilted a bit over the years,” he said. “In the days of the Apollo program, we were interested in the makeup of planetary atmospheres, like Mars and Venus. Now we are looking to better understand Earth’s space environment and how it affects things like communication, navigation and the reentry of space vehicles.”

Researchers Launch Audio Website

NASA recorded thousands of hours of audio during the Apollo missions, yet few people have heard more than the highlights.

The agency recorded all communications between the astronauts, mission control specialists and countless backroom sub-teams serving as support staff during the moon missions, including Neil Armstrong’s famous quotes from Apollo 11 in July 1969.

Much of this audio remained in storage on outdated 30-track analog tapes for decades until researchers at UT Dallas launched a project to recover, digitize and analyze the audio and make it accessible to the public.

Dr. John H.L. Hansen talks about digitizing thousands of hours of audio from the Apollo missions and what it meant to him. If you don’t hear the audio, listen to his comments on Vimeo.

In 2012, researchers at the Center for Robust Speech Systems (CRSS) in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science received a National Science Foundation grant to develop advanced speech-processing technologies to reconstruct and transform the audio archive, with portions housed at Explore Apollo, a website that provides public access to the materials. The project, in collaboration with the University of Maryland, included audio from all of Apollo 11 and most of the Apollo 1, Apollo 13 and Gemini 8 missions.

The project, completed in 2017, was led by Dr. John H.L. Hansen, CRSS founder and director, and research scientist Abhijeet Sangwan PhD’09. The team, which included doctoral students, developed algorithms to process, recognize and analyze the audio to determine who said what, when and how.

The recovered audio was recently stitched together with silent 70 mm video footage from NASA’s Mission Operations Control Room and featured in the CNN documentary “Apollo 11.”

“We went to NASA and expected to be handed a collection of hard disks with all the audio that they had already digitized,” said Hansen, associate dean for research, professor of electrical engineering and Distinguished Chair in Telecommunications at UT Dallas. “When we got there, they pointed us to their 1960s single-track audio playback machine — SoundScriber — and took us back to a storage area where they had boxes and boxes of 1-inch tapes, and said, ‘Have at it.’”

As part of its effort, the UT Dallas team developed its own hardware solution to digitize simultaneously all 30 tracks. 

“Normally our students are working on algorithms and mathematics, but the chance to cross over into history and preservation was something new,” Hansen said. “It’s one thing to say you improved speech technology for the U.S. government or a major company. It’s another to say, ‘I’m hearing Neil Armstrong’s or Buzz Aldrin’s voice and backroom mission specialists working collectively to monitor and solve issues to ensure the success of the mission.’ Now future generations will be able to forever hear these heroes behind the heroes, the countless engineers, scientists and specialists who ensured the success of the Apollo program.”

Hansen, professor of electrical engineering and Distinguished Chair in Telecommunications at UT Dallas, sits next to the SoundScriber, the only device that could play the analog recordings of thousands of hours of communications during NASA’s lunar missions.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].