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'One small step': Apollo 11 contributions from 3 OU graduates exhibited in Bizzell Memorial Library

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Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 moon landing.

One small step for man, one giant leap — for three OU alumni.

July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Bizzell Memorial Library created an exhibit commemorating the Apollo 11 mission that successfully traveled to the moon and back.

One section of the exhibit was dedicated to three OU graduates who played crucial roles in the mission — Mareta West, Fred Haise and Jerry Elliott.

Jeremy Davis, a graduate research assistant for exhibits at OU libraries, conducted much of the research for the exhibit. Davis said learning how important West, Haise and Elliott had been to the mission was fascinating.

Mareta West, Davis said, was the first female astrogeologist. West selected the exact landing site on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, determining the ideal location for the Apollo mission to land for its research. West had graduated from OU with a geology degree in 1937, according to the exhibit.

For Davis, who is a single father with two daughters, West’s story is particularly important.

“It was really inspiring,” Davis said, “to know that she was the one that selected the landing sites for the Apollo program. … Especially at that time, NASA was highly, highly male-oriented. Though it didn’t touch with (West’s) story, the story Hidden Figures also touches on that it was very racially segregated. So you see the challenges that women in that time period specifically had.”

Jerry Elliott, who was the first Native American student to earn a physics degree from OU, according to the exhibit, was the flight dynamics retrofire officer for the Apollo program. 

“His console was literally on the very front row, if you’ve seen pictures of the Apollo 11 mission control center,” Davis said. “His chair was on the front row, his station was literally right in front of the actual main screens in what they call the trench, the people that had more hands-on control. … The people in the trench were the ones that actually helped run the ship itself. These were the physicists, and they were making sure that we got to where we were going.”

Elliott has worked for NASA for over 50 years, according to the exhibit, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Richard Nixon for his work in response to the Apollo 13 disaster, after which he calculated the trajectory needed to return the crew to earth.

Fred Haise, Davis said, is well-known because of his portrayal by Bill Paxton in “Apollo 13.” Haise, who graduated from OU with a bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering with distinction in 1959, served as lunar module pilot on the Apollo 13 mission. But on the mission that led to mankind’s first step onto the moon, Haise was the backup behind Buzz Aldrin.

“(Haise) would’ve been the one that would take the second step on the moon,” Davis said, “had something happened, had Aldrin gotten the sniffles, or anything, he would’ve gotten called up.”

As the mission’s 50th anniversary approaches, Davis said, he was fascinated by the impact these three Sooners have had on the first moon landing.

“It was a really fascinating exhibit,” Davis said, “and the more work I did and the more I researched, it really opened my eyes to seeing how connected we were to the (Apollo) program.”

Scott Kirker is a letters and Spanish senior and assistant news managing editor for The Daily. Previously he worked as summer editor-in-chief and as a news reporter covering research and administrative searches.

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