Man On a Mission article

Man on a Mission: How a Grad Helped Put Man on the Moon 50 Years Ago

By Logan Sweet
Photography by LJ Abrams
Fall 2019 Issue

“Want to see some rockets?” As soon as he asks the question, a boyish grin spreads across his face. Twenty-five years have passed since Jon Haussler ’59 retired from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, but time has not dulled his passion for space travel.

Jon Haussler '59

Haussler was triple-majoring in math, physics and chemistry at Susquehanna as the “Space Race” was heating up. It was an epic contest between two Cold War rivals — the United States and the former Soviet Union — to achieve various firsts in spaceflight, with the ultimate goal of landing a man on the moon.

“I had Dr. T. Townson Smith for physics at SU. In 1957, when I was a junior, the Russians launched the first satellite,” he recalls. “We came into class the next morning and had a lot of questions. Dr. Smith went to the board and worked through several long and difficult equations to show us what had to be done for Sputnik to stay in orbit. It was fascinating.”

As a boy growing up in nearby Sunbury, Pennsylvania, Haussler couldn’t have dreamed of the role he’d play in the United States’ journey to space because the technology didn’t yet exist.

As a Susquehannan, Haussler was coming of age at a critical moment in American history. Tens of millions of people across the United States and the former Soviet Union were tuned into the two competing superpowers, as each was vying to prove to the world that they, and they alone, had the best scientists, technology and economies in a post–World War II era.

The competition was intensely fierce. It was plagued with propaganda, but it also saw monumental scientific achievements, milestones that are everlasting. It’s why today, more than five decades later, we study Sputnik and Endeavor, why Apollo is not just a Greek god, and why names like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Yuri Gagarin will be forever stitched into the fabric of history.

“I bought a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer that had a write-up about that first satellite. I was so interested in space and the opportunities there, so when NASA was created, I was in my glory. I was ready to go,” Haussler beams.

And soon he was on the ground floor of the U.S. space program.

Jon Haussler ’59

A Part of World History

Prior to his graduation, Haussler was intrigued by a pamphlet circulating throughout the physics department. Its cover was stamped with the official seals of three government agencies, and its inside touted new and exciting opportunities for physicists, mathematicians and chemists. He felt it spoke directly to him.

“I wanted to go into civil service or use my skills to get some kind of government job that would give me and my future family the same benefits my dad had,” he recounts.

After receiving a call for an interview, he located Huntsville, Alabama, on a map, loaded his ’53 Mercury coupe and made the 12-hour drive. He was hired almost immediately in the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. Along with thousands of other young, eager scientists, Haussler possessed the skills, determination and unrelenting curiosity needed to build the nation’s burgeoning space program.

A year after moving to Alabama, Haussler became one of the first employees of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. government’s civilian rocketry and spacecraft propulsion research center.

As he reminisces about his roles in what are arguably some of humankind’s greatest scientific accomplishments, Haussler’s demeanor shifts. He sits a little taller in his chair. He speaks a little quicker and a little louder. The fleeting smile that appears after cracking the occasional joke lingers when he talks about the science that made NASA’s most famous missions possible.

He was at Marshall when it was first dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and when President John F. Kennedy made his announcement in 1961 that the United States was going to send a man to the moon.

By 1965, Haussler was one of 7,500 government employees working toward that goal. Though the term “aerospace” had only just begun to be used, he was given the title of aerospace engineer. As a member of the early Apollo missions, Haussler worked on flight evaluations, looking for anomalies between pre- and post-flight trajectories.

The Apollo 11 mission ultimately culminated with Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to set foot on the lunar surface. Haussler was an important member behind the scenes — he worked with a team to slingshot Apollo 11’s Saturn V rocket around the moon to avoid trajectories that presented collision hazards.

After Apollo 11 and the first moon landing, Haussler managed various elements of the Apollo missions that followed. For his role in the Apollos 13 through 17, he oversaw the lunar impact team, which was tasked with crashing the Saturn V into the moon to perform seismic measurements of the lunar surface.

“There aren’t many of us original NASA guys still around,” he says, “who worked in the program and saw the Apollo missions from inception to completion.”

He later worked on Skylab, the first space station launched and operated by NASA, and then Spacelab, a reusable laboratory developed by the European Space Agency. During the Skylab mission, Haussler served as the interface between NASA and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

Haussler also worked on the Hubble Space Telescope and, before his retirement in 1994, he helped with the development of the International Space Station.

“Looking back, I think of all the things that we achieved. At the time, we were just doing our jobs,” Haussler says. “We were given tasks and we were asked to make things happen, and we did. Now I see the significance of those jobs. I can see how important our work really was, and I’m thankful that I had an education that allowed me to be a part of that.”

He doesn’t say he’s proud of the work he has done, but he doesn’t really have to, either. The joy he experienced throughout his career is unmistakable, and the pride that he still feels is obvious.

“We’re the only country that’s gone to the moon. Not Russia or China or anyone else has been able to follow us. That’s quite the accomplishment,” he states.

Old newspapers

A Hero to Next-gens

Today, Haussler volunteers as a docent at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The center sits adjacent to his former workspaces at Marshall, and displays rockets, artifacts and achievements of the United States space program.

Each time he visits the museum, Haussler slips on a perfectly pressed white lab coat. A name badge is clipped to its front pocket, an American flag is sewn onto its sleeve and the dark blue NASA emeritus insignia boldly covers its back. It’s like he is going back to work. In a way, he is.

“I help people understand what’s on display at the center and answer the questions they have. I want them to be able to understand what they’re seeing,” Haussler says.

Often he’s interrupted by enthusiastic visitors. Each of them brings questions, new and old, which he answers with grace and enthusiasm. “Did you really work for NASA?” museumgoers often ask.

The Space & Rocket Center is also home to the internationally acclaimed Space Camp, a program that enables students from around the world to study space and the history of space travel. Program graduates become historians, researchers and even astronauts. Campers often approach Haussler, hoping he’ll share his stories with them. As he does, they listen intently.

Unlike Haussler, Space Camp students have grown up with dreams of visiting space. Because of him, they might actually live their dream.

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