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Astronauts from Kansas

Since Kansans have been involved in aeronautics from its beginnings, it should come as no surprise that Kansans also have been involved in the space program. Native Kansans were among the support staff of Project Mercury. First Lieutenant Wayne Koons of Lyons was the command pilot of the helicopter crew that retrieved Alan Shepard and his space capsule from the sea following his historic first American manned space flight. Ten years later, in 1971, three other Kansans were aboard recovery helicopters to pluck Shepard's Apollo 14 capsule from the ocean.

In 1963, the first African American was named to the astronaut program. He was Captain Edward J. Dwight, Jr. of Kansas City, Kansas. It was not the first "first" for Dwight: he and his sister were the first blacks to enroll in Kansas City's Ward High School.

In the mid-1960s, two Kansans, Ron Evans and Joe Engle joined the NASA astronaut program. Evans was born in St. Francis and spent part of his youth in Topeka, graduating from Highland Park High School. Engle was a native of Abilene and grew up in nearby Chapman. He achieved his pilot-astronaut rating in 1965. His test flight on the X-15 to a height of 280,000 feet earned him the distinction of being the youngest Air Force officer to wear astronaut's wings. Although they weren't acquainted at the time, both Evans and Engle graduated from the University of Kansas in the same engineering class. Both men were also part of the back-up crew for the Apollo 14 moon flight.

Ron Evans' Apollo XVII patchRon Evans was named to the crew of Apollo 17, the last moon landing flight in the Apollo program. He piloted the command module that orbited the moon while the other crewmembers landed on its surface. Engle was to have been named to that crew but he was "bumped" by scientist Dr. Harrison Schmitt. Engle, however, was soon assigned to work on the development of the space shuttle. He piloted the shuttle in two approach and landing tests in 1977 and was part of the back-up crew for the shuttle's initial voyage. He and Captain Richard Truly manned the crew for the shuttle's second flight.

Steve Hawley became the next Kansas astronaut. A native of Ottawa and graduate of Salina High School and the University of Kansas, Hawley flew on five shuttle missions spending 32 days in space.

The spirit of Kansas pioneers lives on in its astronauts and their travels into space, the final frontier.

Entry: Astronauts from Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2004

Date Modified: December 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.