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UTSI Professor Urges Young Visitors to Think ‘Outside Box’ Re: Space Work

Thirty-two Tennessee high-school visitors to The University of Tennessee Space Institute recently were urged to think “outside the box” and to anticipate opportunities to participate in space exploration.

This advice came from Gary A. Flandro, who as a graduate student looking “outside the box,” found a way for Voyager to tour outer planets of the solar system. More than 40 years after plotting a “gravity assist” route so that Voyager gained impetus by flying past various planets, the space craft is still going strong – now deep in interstellar space. At California Institute of Technology, Flandro was told such a feat would be impossible.

The visitors were from a “summer camp” at Tennessee Technological University President’s Academy for Emerging Technologies. From 65 applicants, 32 were chosen from “all over Tennessee,” said Kenneth W. Hunter Sr., associate professor of basic engineering and director of the Academy.

The visitors toured several research facilities at UTSI before moving on to Arnold Engineering Development Center.

Citing predictions that Earth’s fossil fuels will be depleted in 50 years, Flandro stressed that “our future is tied to our access to space.”

An “unlimited source of energy” lies a short distance beyond the thin atmospheric layer surrounding Earth, he told the students.

“The solar radiation flux from the sun is an endless source of energy if we can discover a practical method for collecting it in orbit and transporting it to the earth,” the rocket scientist explained.

As another example of “thinking out of the box,” Flandro briefly described research by one of his graduate students into the feasibility of delivering payloads to low-earth orbit by means of a space elevator that would use a tether suspended from an orbiting platform. This space elevator concept could be a way of capturing energy from the sun and bringing it to Earth, he said.

Helium 3 represents “a perfect source of clean fusion energy,” the professor said, adding, “While it is extremely rare on Earth, it exists in abundance on the surface of the moon – one of many benefits of our going to the moon.”

Flandro, who occupies the Institute’s Boling Chair of Excellence in Space Propulsion, recalled the “exciting times” from 1957 to 1973 before “apathy” and “loss of the will to succeed” dampened this country’s exploration of space.

Future success – and expanded opportunities for participation – will come with more involvement from the private sector and less from “big government,” Flandro believes.

He and Joel W. Muehlhauser, UT assistant vice president and UTSI dean of research, encouraged the students to return “in a few years” as graduate students. Students from Coffee County included Kaley Babilon and Lucas Layne, Manchester, and Samantha Bartee and Kelly carter, Tullahoma.