Skip to content

Professor Emeritus Gary Flandro Honored by NASA

Gary Flandro, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee Space Institute, has been honored by NASA for his contributions on the Voyager project.

He is one of several NASA pioneers included in a special feature of NASA’s celebration of 50 years of space exploration.

NASA commissioned Jay O’Callahan, a prominent American storyteller, to write “a love letter to NASA” in celebration of fifty years of space exploration.

O’Callahan spent the better part of a year and a half, interviewing astronauts, engineers and various NASA employees, studying astronomy, reading and traveling to recapture the essence of what the last fifty years meant to the NASA community and to the world. The National Public Radio presented a holiday special entitled Living on Earth where O’Callahan performed his “Forged in the Stars’, to a live radio audience.

In O’Callahan’s presentation, he created two fictional characters that were romantically involved at the beginning of the presentation. They were tasked to write a love story about some of the people who were contributors over the last fifty years to NASA and the space program. By the story’s end they were just friends, but both had a love for NASA and the people who had been an integral part of the NASA history.

O’Callahan told about a young Gary Flandro who was a student at Caltech in 1965, while also working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Flandro discovered that the outer planets would align on one side of the sun in a way that had not happened since Jefferson’s time and will not align again in this way for another 176 years.

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, the gas giants, would play a pivotal role in what would be a Grand Tour of the Outer Planets. Flandro applied the ‘gravity assist’ idea that a space craft approaching a planet from behind can gain energy because the gravity of the planet flings it forward at a tremendous speed. A spacecraft can travel on until it approaches another planet and again gathers energy from the next planet and will be flung forward again, and then on to the next planet and to the next. This is something like a cosmic billiard game.

At the time of Flandro’s discovery, Mars, at 35 million miles away, was the closest planet to earth. Neptune is about two and a half billion miles away. Nobody knew for sure if it would work, but engineers and scientists began planning and building the small spacecraft weighing about eighteen hundred pounds each. They were named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. The original plan was to fly by each of the four outer planets but NASA curtailed the flight to include only Jupiter and Saturn due to budget constraints. However, despite the funding cuts, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory secretly built the Voyagers with the capability to carry out the complete Grand four planet mission as envisaged by Flandro. After the successful Jupiter and Saturn encounters, and considering the robust good-health of the spacecraft, NASA provided funding to allow Voyager 2 to complete the full Jupiter-Saturn-Uranus-Neptune Grand Tour mission. Voyager 2 encountered Neptune on August 25, 1989. The spacecraft is still operating after 33 years and is now the most distant human-made object in space; it is 12.9 billion kilometers from the Sun. Voyager 1 recently made a new discovery of an interstellar gas cloud that physicists say should not exist.

When Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977, NASA used their imagination and included on both spacecraft a gold record with various sounds and images portraying the diversity of life on earth. Among the things on the phonograph record was “hello” in fifty-five languages, music consisting Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, the Beetles, Australian horn and totem music, Melanesian panpipes, Chinese chin music, Japanese flute music and music from all over the world. They also included the sounds of whales, the cries of babies, multiple everyday sounds of earth today, as well as a message from the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

Flandro said “It is highly unlikely anyone will ever retrieve the gold record since it isn’t heading for any particular star. The record is a time capsule of sorts and not a serious attempt to communicate with any extraterrestrial life form”.

In 2008, Voyagers 1 and 2 became the third and fourth human artifact to escape from the solar system. They will go into interstellar space in six or seven years and reach the Oort cloud in the year 26,000 and make the closest approach to the star Sirius in the year 296,036.

Flandro received his M.S. degree from California Institute of Technology in 1960 and his PhD from California Institute of Technology in 1967. Flandro came to the University of Tennessee Space Institute in 1991 when he was appointed to the Boling Chair of Excellence. He kept that position until he retired in December 2009. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). He was awarded the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal in 1998 “for seminal contributions to the design and engineering of multi-outer-planet missions, including the Grand Tour opportunity for the epic Voyager explorations.”

Robert “Buddy” Moore, Executive Director of UTSI remarked that “While many people have contributed to the space program over the past 50 years, a very small number have made enormous contributions and one of those individuals is Flandro. It remains a privilege to have him associated with UTSI.”

Also, among those who were honored in the “love story” was the first school teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe who died, along with seven astronauts, when Challenger blew up in mid-air, while the world looked on.

NASA was formed on October 1, 1958 due to two primary things. Russia had launched Sputnik in October 1957, showing the world they had the technology to launch nuclear weapons on rockets and beating out the United States to be first to launch a rocket into space.

Secondly, the Army and Navy laboratories were competing with each other, often duplicating things, so out of necessity, Congress, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, previously known as National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, to oversee and coordinate non-military space research.