NASA brought profound change to Rice


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NASA brought profound change to Rice


It was the first word Neil Armstrong radioed back to Earth from the Sea of Tranquility, and the success of the Apollo program forever changed the city’s image across the globe. Given the central role that Rice played in attracting NASA to Houston, the university can lay claim to triggering Houston’s transformation — at least in the minds of the world — into a modern, space-age city.

But even as NASA was changing Houston, it was also changing Rice.

Rice’s Centennial Historian Melissa Kean said NASA played a role in the desegregation of Rice.

This weekend’s SpaceFest activities commemorate Apollo 11 moon landing


This weekend a four-day celebration called “SpaceFest” will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Houston’s central role as the home of NASA Mission Control.

The celebration includes a number of free activities at downtown’s Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney St., where kids can launch their own rocket by attending the Stomp Rockets interactive demonstration presented by the Rice Space Institute and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. President John F. Kennedy’s historic 1962 speech at Rice Stadium and several space-themed film shorts will be shown repeatedly in domed theaters on Discovery Green.

SpaceFest is co-sponsored by Discovery Green, NASA, Houston Museum of Natural Science and Rice University.

For the SpaceFest calendar of events, go to

NASA’s decision to locate the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston in September 1961 happened within days of the arrival of new Rice President Kenneth Pitzer. A well-respected chemist from Stanford, Pitzer was also a Washington veteran, having served many years as an adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission.

“Pitzer thought space would be the thing that propelled Rice into the top tier, much as aerospace and electronics had done for Stanford, but he knew that was impossible if Rice stayed segregated,” Kean said.

Rice’s board agreed to desegregate the university when it hired Pitzer. And with new executive orders signed by Kennedy that tied federal funding to nondiscrimination in admissions, NASA pushed the university to act quickly.

“Rice had a solid reputation before, but only within a limited academic community,” Kean said. “There wasn’t much glamour associated with Rice, and suddenly, we had something with star power.”

In the end, Pitzer’s vision didn’t come to pass, partly because a vast new space industry didn’t spring up in NASA’s shadow and partly because of America’s decision to pull back from space after the first moon landing. But by the time Apollo was cancelled, Rice’s space research program was firmly established.

“(Apollo) was a bonanza as far as training graduate students,” said Rice Space Institute Director Pat Reiff, professor of physics and astronomy. “It launched Rice as a center for research in space physics and magnetospheric physics.”

Reiff said many of the people who earned their Ph.D.s at Rice during the Apollo program are still leaders in the field, including NASA’s Rich Vondrak, project scientist on the new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Wendell Mendell, manager of the Office for Human Exploration Science at Johnson Space Center (JSC). Four members of NASA’s astronaut corps are Rice alums, and Rice faculty have helped lead missions ranging from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Mars Global Surveyor.

Since the founding of the Baker Institute for Public Policy in 1993, Rice has also become an increasingly important force in shaping the nation’s science policy.

In his position as a space policy expert at the Baker Institute, George Abbey, a former JSC director and Apollo veteran, maintains a powerful voice in the future of Houston’s — and the world’s — place in space. With Neal Lane, Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor and a senior fellow at the Baker Institute, Abbey has authored white papers and articles with both criticisms of and recommendations for NASA and the government.

A 2005 paper for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences detailed the paradox of the nation’s “high ambition and diminishing commitment” for space, and it recommended the steps needed to fulfill George W. Bush’s mandate for manned exploration of the moon and Mars.

The Obama administration is expected to announce its own plans for NASA soon. Congress confirmed former astronaut Charles Bolden this week as NASA’s new administrator, and a report from a presidential committee on space policy is due next month.

As it happens, Bolden was at Rice when the prospect of his nomination came to light in mid-May. Bolden was attending the Baker Institute’s third International Space Medicine Summit, which brought together astronauts, scientists, engineers, physicians and administrators from the American, Russian, European and – for the first time – Chinese space programs.

Were it not for Rice and co-host Baylor College of Medicine, that conference would undoubtedly not have taken place, and Bolden would not have jetted directly to Washington from Space City U.S.A. to meet President Obama — with a set of Rice recommendations in his hand.



About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.