New Mexico is a place steeped not only in vibrant cultural traditions and creative expressions of all art forms, but also in technology, science, history and literature of space---that final frontier of satellites, galaxies and worlds unknown.
Bearing that in mind, the University of New Mexico Honors College now offers a unique course, "Space and New Mexico: From Aliens to the X-Prize,” which is being taught by Professor Leslie Donovan. The course is a bit of a departure for Donovan, who typically teaches humanities courses in early and medieval literature and modern fantasy.
The stars and beyond
“In this 400-level course, students will examine the role of space in New Mexico’s history and its future to comprehend why our state has such a rich connection to the stars and beyond,” Donovan said. “They’ll engage in interdisciplinary exploration of material from technology and the social and physical sciences, viewed primarily from perspectives of literature, to popular culture and history.”
Course topics include the study of New Mexico astronauts, such as Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, one of the 19 women who participated in the 1960s Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program. Students will also review scientist Robert Goddard’s development of early rockets, read science fiction by New Mexico authors, examine critically the history surrounding the possible crash of an alien spaceship near Roswell, look at the potential impact of Spaceport America and the Very Large Array telescopes near Socorro, and learn about X Prize, an educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.
“Students will learn that rocket science actually started here in New Mexico.” — Professor Leslie Donovan
It is rocket science
American physicist Robert H. Goddard built the world's first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926 and is best known as the founding father of modern rocketry. “Students will learn that rocket science actually started here in New Mexico,” Donovan said. “Goddard began developing and testing rockets in a lab at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Naturally, there were safety concerns. When he finally got solid financial backing, he and his wife decided to move to New Mexico, where we have wide open spaces and less possibility of hurting people.”
Donovan has been able to secure a number of notable guest speakers for the class. Nina Lanza, who received her Doctorate of Philosophy in Earth and Planetary Sciences at UNM, is currently a postdoctoral research associate at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She spoke to Donovan’s class about her work with ChemCam (short for Chemical Camera), a state-of-art instrument mounted on the head of the Mars Curiosity Rover. ChemCam combines a powerful laser with a telescope and spectrometer that can analyze light emitted by zapped material, which establishes the chemistry of Mars rocks with extraordinary precision.
Astronauts and authors
Mike Mullane, one of the space shuttle astronauts who lives in Albuquerque, is also coming to Honors College to give a public talk. He has written several books, one an autobiography, "Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut," which Donovan’s class will be reading. “Most of the talks we give in Honors are public talks versus formal lectures,” Donovan said. “We like lots of discussion.”
In addition to being part of the Woman in Space Program, Wally Funk was also one of the Mercury 13, which refers to 13 American women who underwent many of the same physical screening tests as the male astronauts selected by NASA in 1959. She is an American aviator and Goodwill Ambassador, and was the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. Funk also holds the distinction of being the first civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, Okla. and the first Federal Aviation Agency inspector. Funk will give a public lecture on Monday, Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. in the Honors forum (lower plaza level of the Student Health Center Building).
"I'm especially excited to meet Wally Funk," said Craig Dubyk, a student in the class. "When I first learned about the Mercury 13, I was surprised, but I also felt it was natural: it seems obvious that women would be ideal astronauts, since they tend to be smaller and need fewer resources than men. It's telling that the United States chose to put a lot more money down on the project solely to send men rather than women into space."
Donovan also landed Loretta Hall, award-winning author of two books on New Mexico’s relation to space exploration, space history and technology, to come speak during the semester.
When plans for Spaceport America, the country's only purpose-built commercial spaceflight facility began moving forward, Hall was fascinated to discover the important role New Mexico has played in the development of space travel. She decided to share that largely uncelebrated history by writing the only book to document the historic events in the state and the personal stories of the people who accomplished them. Hall’s Out of this World: New Mexico's Contributions to Space Travel was published in 2011.
“From the invention of rockets, and coursing the Martian terrain, to female astronauts, the credibility of alien visitations and the spirited enterprise of Space America’s future, this class is providing an opportunity not just for Honors students but for anyone across the UNM and local community to learn about the many roles New Mexico has played in the history of space and its future as seen from our planet,” Donovan said.