Connections to Apollo Missions Helped University Take Giant Leap Forward

The summer of 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of two milestones that are inextricably linked: the first landing of men on the moon and the genesis of UT 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 ongoing space-based studies of the Earth’s ionosphere and 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

In the early 1960s, the founders of Texas Instruments Inc. established a research institution in North Texas called the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest, later renamed the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies (SCAS). On Sept. 1, 1969, SCAS became UT 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.
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. — Amanda Siegfried