OHIO — Half a century after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Adrian Rivera is working to follow in his footsteps.
Originally from a small town in Puerto Rico, Rivera moved to Ohio to pursue a college education almost 70 years after Armstrong found his way to Purdue University. Today, he’s working on small-scale replicas of the Saturn V rocket that launched Armstrong to the moon.
“His life story is why I try to do the best I can,” Rivera said as he stood close to a medley of high-tech equipment at Kent State University “You can pick anyone in this building, and they have been inspired by Armstrong.”
Brought to Ohio by following the aerospace dreams of Armstrong, Rivera is working to stand with the next generation of aerospace engineers in the Buckeye state, and due to aviation pioneers, he’ll most likely be on firm footing. With epicenters of manufacturing and research scattered throughout the state, the “Birthplace of aviation” is more than just a slogan.
Setting up Ohio’s aerospace industry
In 1903, two brothers from Dayton took a trip to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to test if man-made flight was possible, and Ohio has never been the same. The Wright brothers, two bicycle mechanics turned inventors, changed the basic understandings of everyday life with a machine made of cloth and wood. The moment was exceptional, and the two became international sensations.
For those coming to age in the first half of the 20th century, the Wright brothers — two Ohioans — were the literally the first in aviation, and an industry began to grow up around their achievements. Today, Dayton hosts the Air Force Research Laboratory and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, as well as a number of aerospace manufacturers, such as Northrup Grumman. Just down the road in Cincinnati, GE Aviation works as the single largest aircraft engine manufacturer in the world, and many individual parts are made nearby.
Not long after the Wright brothers made their historic flight, Cleveland too jumped on the aviation bandwagon. By 1918, Cleveland’s Chamber of Congress pushed federal authorities that the centrally-located city was conveniently located as a pit stop for mail service between the coasts, and again, industry soon followed. After Cleveland set down its municipal airport, the spot often hosted the National Air Races, which were held in the area throughout the 1930s and ’40s.
Armstrong, who lived in multiple Ohio cities due to his dad’s role as a state auditor, saw his first race at three-years-old at the spot, and the the scene of a man-made machine flying low and fast most likely planted a seed for the young boy. Armstrong found a dream to pursue, and the rest is history.
Today, that same spot is the location of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, and the outline of the old race-ground can still be seen from airplanes flying overhead.
While the average Ohio resident may glorify the moon landing and Armstrong’s accomplishment, Armstrong was well-known to be more down to earth about the overall mission — choosing to lean into the scientific and technical understanding of what the moon landing meant rather than expounding on its larger symbolism.
In a Cincinnati Enquirer article written on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, Armstrong chose to answer questions posed by a journalist through email, and his answers are typically short and to the point. For example, reporter John Johnston asked Armstrong about the lessons of Apollo 11 for future generations.
“Apollo 11 confirmed that humans were capable of landing on other celestial bodies with atmospheres and gravity fields different from those of Earth,” Armstrong said in his written response.
But while Armstrong was typically taciturn about his work — looking to highlight the data gained from countless experiments conducted under his watch rather than revel in the fame — others have found more meaning in what was an incredible feat in 1969.
Seven years after his death, Armstrong’s scientific accomplishments have spurred new generations. Many young men and women who witnessed the moon landing in 1969 as teenagers have become Ohio’s latest generation of astronauts, and some are still finding themselves putting in hundreds of hours in spacewalks.
And then there’s individuals like Rivera, his classmates and his professors. At Kent State University, the next generation of aerospace experts are being groomed to prepare the next steps in space exploration.
In the late afternoon, Kent state students Saubhagiya Kumar and the aforementioned Rivera walk a lap around the university’s thermodynamics lab to describe the high-end equipment they use to explore aeronautic principles together with Ali Abdul-Aziz, an associate professor.
“The equipment shows them how to collect data,” Abdul-Aziz said. “Students have to be expose to hands-on experience. Studying engineering without hands-on experience, it’s not enough.”
Compared to other programs across the state, Kent State University’s program is a relatively new one — only three-years-old — but the small size can be helpful by giving each student more time with professors Abdul-Aziz said. The university has also made a sizable investment into the program, which can literally be seen in the equipment scattered throughout the room.
The largest piece, a wind tunnel, serves as the room’s centerpiece, and the students do a quick run-through of how it works. Basically, air is blown over certain pieces, and students can measure the different pressures exerted as they turn and rotate the piece inside.
Armstrong would have been making similar measurements when he was a senior in high school. A wind tunnel to was Armstrong’s senior science project. Unsurprisingly, all three at Kent knew much about Armstrong and spoke of him fondly.
“He has become the face of aviation,” Abdul-Aziz said. “He’s just a hero.”
Kent State is just one of many Ohio universities expanding their aeronautics programs to jump on board a new wave of research and development. According to JobsOhio, the state graduates 13,000 engineers and technicians annually to join the 38,000 aerospace professionals working in the state. And Armstrong’s memory plays a factor in that by drawing highly skilled men and women to the state to work in the same areas where he spent his time.
While Armstrong will be remembered for his title as “First man on the moon”, it’s who he’s inspired that may be a longer-term benefit for his home state.
Future of Ohio aeronautics
Seven years after Armstrong’s death, Ohio has been able to ride the historical benefits of its aviation pioneers to create an industry that generates $8 billion annually for the state, but it remains to be seen how far those benefits will be extended into the future. Places like Kent State and Glenn Research Center have set themselves up to capitalize on the next generation, but the environment that created Armstrong has shifted.
Experience Coordinator Greg Brown at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum said museum visitors are often surprised at Ohio’s relationship to the aeronautics industry because many in northwest Ohio don’t see its presence in everyday life. A quick mapping of major aerospace manufacturers and research centers in the state show that a dead-zone exists in northwest Ohio when compared to aerospace epicenters like Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton.
“A lot of these companies that were around no longer exist,” Brown said. “There’s no continuity. … The collective memory was lost. A lot of people are surprised that so many astronauts did come from Ohio. It’s just not thought of anymore.”
Ohio is also losing the astronaut game. The state hasn’t graduated a new astronaut since 2000, and while the state was well-known for the number of astronauts it produced in the mid-20th century, the state has since lost its first place ranking to larger population states like California, New York and Texas primarily because the industry has moved.
“A lot of the early astronauts and aviators, they were born at a time when aviation was still in its infancy. In the 1920s and 1930s in this state, it was a big big deal to be involved with aviation and airplanes.” Brown said. “For these guys in the first or two three (astronaut) groups … there were still a lot of unknowns in aviation. They just didn’t have a handle on high performance flight. But these guys were predisposed to challenge themselves, because they see this prize dangling before them, to open up this new frontier. Because they lived in the state where flying had been born, that just really drew them.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.