This online exhibit is based on the physical exhibit of the same name that opened on July 20, 2009 in the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, part of the Purdue University Libraries. Debuting on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, the exhibit chronicles Purdue University’s role in aviation history and space exploration.
Purdue and the community have a long-standing relationship with aviation history. The first air mail delivery occurred in Lafayette, Indiana, in 1859. Ten years later, Purdue University was founded in what is now known as West Lafayette, Indiana. The first Purdue graduate to become an aviator was J. Clifford Turpin (class of 1908), who was taught to fly by Orville Wright. Turpin helped the Wright brothers redesign their airplane engine and controls. Another Purdue graduate, Ralph Johnson, was the first person to document aircraft landing procedures that are still used today.
In 1930, Purdue became the first U.S. university to offer college credit for flight training, and it opened the nation's first university-owned airport. Amelia Earhart served as a women’s career counselor at Purdue from 1935 until her disappearance in 1937. Purdue provided the funds for Earhart's "Flying Laboratory," the Lockheed Electra in which she disappeared while attempting to fly around the world in 1937. The Karnes Center at Purdue houses an extensive collection of Amelia Earhart’s papers, photographs, and memorabilia.
Often referred to as the “Cradle of Astronauts,” Purdue has produced 22 astronauts who have been chosen for space flight. One of the members of NASA’s seven original astronauts, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, graduated from Purdue in 1950. He and Roger Chaffee, another Purdue alumnus, were selected for what was to become the first Apollo mission. They became the first tragedies of the U.S. space program in 1967, when they perished in a fire during a simulated launch. Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, the first and last astronauts to walk on the moon, also graduated from Purdue. Approximately 37 percent of all human U.S. space flights have included a Purdue alumnus on board.
France Córdova, Purdue’s eleventh president, is a former chief scientist for NASA. Purdue faculty and alumni continue to play a significant role in the U.S. space program today. Scott Tingle, a Purdue graduate in 1988, was recently chosen to undertake training to become an astronaut.
In 2008, the Virginia Kelly Karnes Center, part of Purdue University Libraries, began a concerted effort to collect the papers of alumni and faculty who have contributed to aviation and space exploration. In 2008 and 2009 the Karnes Center acquired the papers of Neil Armstrong and a commitment from Eugene Cernan for his papers. An actively growing collection, the Purdue Flight Archives is intended to preserve and provide access to primary source materials documenting Purdue’s role in aerospace history.