Skip to content

UTSI Professor Flandro Urges Students to Tune in to Opportunities in Outer Space

Gary Flandro recently visited students in various Tullahoma schools, sharing his views on potential rewards awaiting travelers who search for treasures beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Flandro, who fills the Boling Chair of Excellence in Space Propulsion at The University of Tennessee Space Institute, assured the young people that “space tourism” will be a big thing within their lifetimes.

The professor, who resides in Tullahoma, insisted that Earth is “no more a closed system than it is flat” and called on the students to study and help solve future problems in space exploration. In his view, private companies will play a major role as mankind searches “out there” for solutions to many problems.

Speaking to three different groups at Tullahoma High, he quoted Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer, that “when a bright person tells you something is possible, he’s probably right, but when that person tells you something is impossible, he’s probably wrong.”

That quotation influenced Flandro as a young graduate student to succeed in searching for a way to power a vehicle to search the outer planets. After determining that in 1977, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were all going to be lined up on the same side of the moon — a rare opportunity occurring every 175 years – Flandro charted the course so the Voyager could visit all four planets. Critics said it would be impossible to power the Voyager on such a trip, but Flandro insisted that by flying close to each of the four planets, “gravity assist” would boost the ship onward. Even so, it was hard “selling” the plan, and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory stretched a skimpy budget in preparing the Voyager to swing past all four planets. It is still zooming deeper into space, Flandro said.

In addition to the high school, Flandro visited West Middle and East Lincoln Schools in May. He sees these efforts to stimulate interest in science and engineering as a “payback” to all who have helped him in his career.

While commending NASA’s efforts in space exploration, Flandro sees the government’s role receding as private industry develops new methods to replace rockets and the space shuttle. He mentioned the use of tethers and space elevators as alternate methods of exploring the larger world.

While hydrogen has been proposed as an alternate fuel, Flandro noted that producing hydrogen requires use of fossil fuels. The best long-term way to produce energy, he said, is to copy the sun’s thermonuclear method, using Helium 3, which is almost non-existent on Earth. However, Flandro told the students, Helium 3 is plentiful on the moon and can be mined without damaging that celestial ball.

Urging the young people to think in new ways, the speaker called their attention to the X-43 aerospace plane, developed by private industry as a way to fly to Earth’s outer edge in speeds almost seven times the speed of sound.