The Next Neil Armstrong

A man sits with a space helmet and suit on.
Neil Armstrong

Courtesy NASA

On the day man first walked the moon—Sunday, July 20, 1969—Indiana slowed to a hush. Days earlier, in a press conference where he praised Hoosier manufacturers for their contribution to space exploration, Governor Edgar Whitcomb had declared July 21 “Apollo 11 Day.” When that Monday arrived, banks and other businesses closed, as towns across the state united in celebration. In West Lafayette, Purdue University dismissed summer classes early so faculty, staff, and students could cheer one of their own making history. Fittingly, as in the rest of the country, no storyline loomed larger in the college town. From the July 16 launch, front pages of the Lafayette Journal and Courier documented every stage of the operation, with special focus on Neil Armstrong, a 1955 Purdue alum who had captured the national imagination as Apollo 11’s mission commander. After Armstrong took his small step and uttered perhaps the most famous words in recorded history, a banner headline in the paper screamed “MAN SETS FOOT ON MOON AND EAGLE FLIES AGAIN” and featured an Associated Press story that assured readers “Moon Not Made of Cheese,” next to another that boasted “Neil Armstrong, Purdue Graduate, All-Time Hero.”

It was a heady turn for the quiet Midwesterner who had led the most grounded of lives at Purdue that included band, clubs, and fraternity fun. When Armstrong and his crew, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, returned to Earth and were released from a three-week quarantine, they were treated to ticker-tape parades in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Richard Nixon; visited 25 countries and world leaders like Queen Elizabeth II on a 45-day tour; and addressed a joint session of Congress.

A decade later, when the world had caught its breath, the public was still eager to celebrate astronauts and hungry to decode ciphers like Armstrong.

What was it, wondered Tom Wolfe in his 1979 book The Right Stuff, “that makes a man sit up on the top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse?” Wolfe concluded it was an “ineffable quality” of bravery, the brand of which would give a man the “ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite—and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.” There was no “test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality,” but rather a series of them.

As Purdue prepares students for those missions, the world’s next Neil Armstrong—or Grissom or Cernan or even Wolf—will scarcely resemble the original.

Those who passed have often carried a degree or two from Purdue, which in NASA’s sixth decade has earned the distinction “cradle of astronauts.” Roughly a third of all spaceflights undertaken by the U.S. have counted Purdue alumni on their manifests. Mercury. Gemini. Apollo. Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions. In fact, at least 10 missions featured more than one alum at a time. A quick review of the space travelers the school has produced reads like a NASA highlight reel: There’s Mitchell, Indiana’s Gus Grissom (class of ’50), the second American in space, one of NASA’s original “Mercury Seven” astronauts who eventually gave his life to the cause in a tragic fire aboard Apollo I in 1967 during routine pre-launch tests. There’s Gene Cernan (Purdue class of ’54, ’56), the most recent astronaut to walk on the moon. There’s David Wolf (’78), who spent 168 days in space. And, of course, there’s Armstrong, the subject of the Oscar-winning, Damien Chazelle–directed 2018 biopic First Man—a film title that doesn’t even require the predicate “… to Walk on the Moon,” because Armstrong’s singular accomplishment is so—well, you know.

Now, 50 years after that first trip and 40 after Wolfe’s book, humankind has trained its sights on a return to the moon in 2024 as part of a larger goal to set foot on Mars. But as Purdue prepares students for those missions, the world’s next Neil Armstrong—or Grissom or Cernan or even Wolf—will scarcely resemble the original.

When Armstrong arrived at Purdue in the fall of 1947, he was 17, a “scared freshman” who had skipped a grade, as he told his biographer, John Norberg. The Wapakoneta, Ohio, native had his heart set on attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become an airplane designer, but after seeing the Boilermakers football team beat the Ohio State Buckeyes in 1945, he gave Purdue a look. Armstrong had landed a Naval Holloway scholarship, requiring him to do two years of college and two years of active duty before he could complete his degree.

Historic photo of a young Neil Armstrong holding a model plane.
Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics was in its infancy when Armstrong came to West Lafayette from Ohio in 1947.

In First Man, Ryan Gosling played Armstrong as a somber and hyper-focused engineer. In the movie, we first catch up with Armstrong in 1961, six years after he graduated. He had just crash-landed the experimental X-15 aircraft in the Mojave Desert.

But in reality, back at Purdue, Armstrong’s first two years seem pretty happy-go-lucky. As a student there, he played the baritone horn in the Purdue All-American Marching Band. He pledged for Phi Delta Theta fraternity. He got called up halfway through his sophomore year, flying 78 missions in the Korean War. When he returned, he didn’t talk much about his time piloting Grumman F9F Panthers. Students described him as unassuming. He graduated in 1955. NASA was established in 1958, and the first seven U.S. astronauts, the Mercury Seven, were introduced in April of the following year. “While on campus, he had no dreams of going to the moon or into space,” Norberg says. “He wanted to be an airplane test pilot.”

Armstrong had come to the right place. Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics was established in 1945. But even before then the university and its alums had a well-established love affair with flight, like Purdue graduate J. Clifford Turpin, who learned to fly from Orville Wright in 1908 and went on to set what was at the time a 9,400-feet altitude record in 1911. That mark would be eclipsed several times by other Boilermakers, including Armstrong himself, when he flew to the moon in 1969. In 1921, the school began offering electives in aeronautical engineering. With each of these achievements, the university’s status as a frontier of flight was further cemented.

This month, the university will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing as well as the university’s sesquicentennial, “150 Years of Giant Leaps.” In October, some of the university’s most high-profile astronaut alums will gather for a reunion. A few artifacts from Armstrong’s time on campus will be on display, including a fading notebook full of his equations and a grade card from 1949. On a 6-point scale, Armstrong received a 6 in descriptive geometry, a 4 in general physics, a 5 in the principles of speech, a 4 in Calculus 2, and 4s in physical activity and bands. Armstrong has left his mark on the campus: the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering anchors the north part of school. A bronze statue of Armstrong sits at the entrance. An inscription reads, “The footprints he left on the moon began as footsteps on this campus.”

Fifty years after the first lunar landing, to be considered for the Astronaut Candidate Program, you only need to check a few boxes: U.S. citizenship; a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or math; and three years of experience and 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time on a jet aircraft. “We take really smart people and turn them into astronauts,” says Brandi Dean, a NASA spokesperson based at the Johnson Space Center.

To find the next Neil Armstrong, then, you need to begin looking at a university that produces a lot of pilots and STEM graduates. Purdue does both, by virtue of having the Purdue University Airport adjacent to campus, right next to its Aero Space Sciences Laboratory, where the university houses a $100,000 vacuum chamber that replicates the conditions of space.

Historic photo of a young Neil Armstrong working with a college friend at a desk.
By all accounts, Armstrong lived a pretty run-of-the-mill existence at Purdue University that included clubs, band, and fraternity life.

Purdue ranks fifth in the nation for female STEM graduates, with 1,785, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program. Female enrollment in the Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering Program is up: 14.6 percent in the last two years in the undergraduate program, and 16.7 percent in the doctoral program. The university has become an increasingly diverse and international mecca for young people interested in space flight, drawing students from all over the world to its School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Purdue ranks first in the nation in arming international students with such degrees. “The world of flight and space is in a very exciting time right now, and that excitement draws students to the field, both men and women,” says Beth Holloway, assistant dean for diversity at the College of Engineering. “Because of the traditionally low representation of women in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, both at Purdue and nationally, we have been more intentional about recruiting women to the field.”

With its most diverse class ever selected in 2017, one that included six men and five women, NASA officials say the first person who might set foot on Mars will most likely have a different background than a Midwesterner test pilot with a crew cut. “Back when we started in the 1960s, it was a part of the time: All the astronauts were white males,” says Dean. “We’ve gone from taking our first ambitious steps in space, putting the first American in orbit, to something where we have people doing everything that you need to live and work in space.”

And so the university that produced the first generation of astronauts—and the archetype of swaggering and brave military test pilots with it—has evolved to produce a different kind of astronaut.

The Next Neil Armstrong grew up down the road from Johnson Space Center in Florida; grew tomato plants in second grade that ended up flying on the space shuttle; has a pilot’s license; and is a certified emergency medical technician. The Next Neil Armstrong lived on a sailboat and surfs.

But the Next Neil Armstrong cannot give interviews because she’s completing the Astronaut Candidate Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, not far from where she was born. NASA policy forbids her from speaking to the press during her training, though she did a flurry of interviews ahead of reporting for duty in August 2017.

A woman waves to a crowd.
Loral O’Hara

Her name is Loral O’Hara. She is 36. She has wanted to be an astronaut since she was a kid, visiting Johnson often. “Those early experiences really hooked me and are a big part of what ignited the dream to be an astronaut,” she told a television station last year.

For the last two years, she has learned Russian, a language all astronauts must speak because it, along with English, is an official language of the International Space Station. She has mastered how to fly a T-38 NASA jet, an aircraft that is notoriously hard to maneuver; the experience prepares her to navigate a rig in space. She will likely finish her training in a few months, then busy herself with NASA grunt work in the Astronaut Office while she awaits a more permanent assignment. Her efforts will earn her a starting salary of $66,026, a G-S 11 on the federal pay scale. She interned at NASA’s KC-135 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, the NASA Academy at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She is, for lack of a more comprehensive and technical term, a badass. And she could be the first woman to walk on the moon or even Mars. “That’s been something that I think we’ve all been dreaming about for ages, just stepping foot on another planet,” she said.

An American is more likely to be struck by lightning in their lifetime—about 1 in 3,000—than selected to join NASA. The space agency doesn’t pick astronauts at regular intervals. Instead, they do so on an as-needed basis. The class before O’Hara’s was in 2013, four years before her selection. She had applied twice before to NASA and didn’t make the cut. This time around, out of a candidate pool of more than 18,000 people who endured an 18-month application process, she was among the 12 who got in. Of the 350 astronauts selected since 1959, only 57—roughly 16 percent—have been female. But O’Hara’s figurative—and maybe, soon, literal—moonshot had a booster rocket: She is a 2009 Purdue University graduate, the same credentials that elevated fellow alum Janice Voss (’75, ’77, ’87), to five spaceflights—more than any other woman in the world.

The Next Neil Armstrong—aside from a British accent—is a lot like Neil Armstrong. His parents—a schoolteacher mother from British Guiana and an MIT engineer father from East Sussex, England—raised him in New Jersey. He built rockets and model airplanes at 6. His parents took him to Kennedy Space Center at 9. He earned his pilot’s license at 17.

A young man poses in front of a single engine airplane.
Geoffrey Andrews

And, like Armstrong, Geoffrey Andrews arrived a little late to the idea of exploring space. “Becoming an astronaut is so wildly competitive that it seems like a fool’s errand to plan for it or to expect to become one, no matter how qualified you might be,” says Andrews, a 24-year-old doctoral student at Purdue. While at Lehigh University pursuing his undergrad degree, Andrews found himself thinking about what his future might hold. “I knew I wanted to get my Ph.D. I knew I was crazy about airplanes and flying. I had my pilot’s license, and I sort of thought, I wonder if I could actually do this. Maybe I’d be qualified to be an astronaut one day, if I had a Ph.D. and a pilot’s license. That’s kind of a naive thing to say, because that’s what everyone thinks.”

He worked for two summers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in the propulsion systems analysis branch. He expects to earn his Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering next year. His area of focus is in high-speed aerodynamics. His dissertation will focus on hypersonics that are at least eight times the speed of sound (think: the speed of a spacecraft upon reentry to the orbit, and the speed of experimental aircraft flown by NASA). That work could indirectly help people get to Mars—or someplace farther flung in the universe—one day. “Theoretically, if the project that I’m on is very successful, then it should greatly increase our ability to design vehicles that fly at hypersonic speeds,” he says. “That can encompass a lot of different things. But my biggest interest lies probably in things like single-stage access vehicles.” Think of the kind of spacecrafts you see in a science-fiction film that can just take off from the ground and go straight to space without booster rockets. “It could theoretically help people get to Mars because a big part of the challenge of landing there is the denseness of the atmosphere. Unless we’re very mistaken about science, the same physics that govern high-speed travel on Earth will apply on Mars.”

Many astronauts make multiple attempts to join NASA. If Andrews applies after achieving his Ph.D., he think there will be enough time to be a part of a Mars mission. “It is possible to see a very narrow and difficult path forward,” he says.

On the rare occasion when Andrews leaves the School of Aeronautics bubble, in which all of his classmates seem to want to work for SpaceX or be the next Neil Armstrong, he gets a sense that his character attributes of fearlessness and blatant self-disregard—or character defects, he jokes—make him a bit different. “It’s maybe a flawed framework to think about it in, but people have this leftover idea from the 1960s or ’70s of The Right Stuff, and I’m not sure that’s what makes an astronaut an astronaut,” Andrews says. “But when I think of my experiences as a pilot in how I approach flying and risk—[those Wolfe-ian characteristics] are something I’ve noticed in myself.” With 250 flight hours logged, he’s learning how to do stomach-turning stunts and other airplane aerobatics to take part in competitions, the kind of daredevil stuff that would make the average recreational pilot blanch—loops, rolls, something called an “avalanche maneuver” (search it on YouTube, but maybe not after a meal). “That is the biggest thing that makes me think I have something distinctly different about myself compared to other people. The fact that I would be hurtling toward the ground at 200 miles per hour in an airplane and my first thought is to laugh.”

The Next Neil Armstrong is a Canadian woman who grew up thinking she was an alien. More specifically, she thought she was from Mars. And not just a plebe Martian, mind you, but a Martian princess. She and her childhood friends would pretend to live on different planets. “You guys are playing a game,” she would tell them, “but it’s real for me.” “I was a weird kid,” says Arly Black, now 28. “I think anyone who wants to go to space was probably a little bit of a weird kid.”

Now at Purdue, it’s not lost on her that there’s a possibility she could walk on the planet that was once the object of her make-believe world. When she first heard talk about a planned NASA mission to Mars, she remembers thinking, I would definitely do that.

A young woman works with electrical instruments at a desk.
Arly Black

On a warm Friday in May, she is at work in a sterile room at the Space Flight Projects Laboratory at the Purdue airport, where she’s focusing on what’s called a “drag sail device,” which would clean up space debris. That would be an essential skill for any long-term space mission like a trip to Mars. Such trips are under the constant threat of being derailed by space debris. Next to a tangle of circuit boards and wires, her laptop computer is open to a program called GMAT, short for The General Mission Analysis Tool, which is the software NASA uses to design space missions. She points her finger at the screen, tracing a satellite’s prospective orbit around Earth.

As a doctoral student studying astrodynamics and orbital mechanics, her current research focuses on controlling the de-orbit of small satellites. “You need to have someone who understands that navigation aspect, so that would be really important [on a mission to Mars].” In her master’s study, she specialized in propulsion. “As an astronaut, you get trained to be a jack of all trades, so I think I already have a bit of a background in a bunch of different areas having to do with the spacecraft itself.”

She didn’t have a straight line to Purdue. Her first gig after undergrad was working for an oil and gas company back in Red Deer, Alberta. She was the only woman in her province to work in an oil field. Ultimately, it was an industry that didn’t sit well with her idealism. “I got a little disenchanted with it after awhile,” Black says. “It just wasn’t the industry I wanted to contribute to.” She decided to go back to school. An aunt put her in touch with someone who worked at Johnson Space Center, and that person told her about the Purdue’s reputation. She decided to apply. She earned her master’s degree, and is now a first-year Ph.D. student working in the Space Flight Projects Laboratory.

“A lot of things you need to be an astronaut—you need money for it, like your pilot’s license, scuba diving, skydiving, stuff like that,” Black says, acknowledging that the system still favors people who came from backgrounds more privileged than hers.

In Canada, space travel is perceived differently than it is in the U.S. Only 10 Canadians have traveled to space, a small fraction of the U.S. total, including seven with NASA. For Black, space travel is about being different. She would be only the fourth Canadian woman to do it. If she doesn’t get selected for her nation’s space program, she could see herself being part of the private effort to get to Mars. “With Elon Musk pushing toward Mars, I just think there’s so much more to explore, and we could push so much farther than where we’ve currently gone. So I think that’s what drives me: I would be getting to do something completely new and something different.”

When she imagines herself, perhaps a decade in the future, sitting in a spacecraft on a launch pad, on the verge of hurtling into the sky, Black feels the fear well up in her gut. “I’m definitely terrified,” she says. “But the idea of missing out on it is kind of more terrifying to me.”

The Next Neil Armstrong is a woman who was born in France. She recently married a fellow Purdue student and plans to apply for U.S. citizenship in three years, which would make her NASA-eligible. She is 24, speaks English with a thick accent, and she could be the first human to walk on Mars. Her name is Jennifer Pouplin. With O’Hara potentially headed to the moon, Pouplin’s destination could very well be the Red Planet, based on timing. Currently pursuing her doctorate in earth and planetary sciences at Purdue, she’s studying the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.

A young woman works in a college computer lab.
Jennifer Pouplin

Inside room 2263 on the second floor of the Hampton Hall of Civil Engineering, Pouplin sits in front of a computer, staring at a bunch of red dots in disarray along an x-y axis. As she clicks her cursor and speeds the simulation forward in time, the dots start to “accrete,” becoming the debris that ultimately forms the two Martian moons. A poster of Mars is plastered to the wall behind her.

Pouplin spends her days running simulations in code languages such as Fortran and Python on a classroom-sized supercomputer to understand how the two moons formed, and determine what that means for human space exploration. The knowledge she’s accumulating could make her essential to any Mars mission. Phobos rises twice, once during the day and once at night. Deimos rises only once every five days. She daydreams about what it would be like to see them rise while standing on the Red Planet’s dusty surface.

“Is it realistic?” asks Pouplin. “Is it something that’s going to happen soon? I’m not sure, but it’s something we have to prepare for.”

Pouplin’s not one of those kids who dreamed of being an astronaut from the time they rode their mother’s hip. At 20, exploring what to do with her life, she Skyped with a Purdue graduate she knew. The alum pitched her on an aeronautics career. Pouplin had been fascinated by space travel, but didn’t grow up in a country where it’s idolized or romanticized as it is here in America. France, after all, is a country that has sent only 10 people to space, out of the more than 500. That’s just about 2 percent. The last French astronaut in the cosmos was Thomas Pesquet, who traveled to the International Space Station in 2016, becoming the first person from his nation in space for nearly a decade. “I’m part of this generation that’s never heard of a French astronaut before,” Pouplin says.

Pouplin is working on her pilot’s license—one thing a lot of astronauts-in-training have in common—and has about 20 hours of flight time logged, halfway to the required 40. (“Any type of flying experience, military or private, is beneficial to have,” according to NASA’s official frequently asked questions for its Astronaut Candidate Program.)

Then there is the issue of timing. The bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010—along with the National Space Policy plan released the same year—put in place the goal of getting humans to Mars by the 2030s. In the best-case scenario, Pouplin would be 35. “That’s a good age for an astronaut,” she says. According to NASA, there’s no age restriction to the astronaut program, and applicants have ranged from 26 to 46, with the average of 34. Already, Pouplin has participated in a two-week stint as an analog astronaut—essentially an earth-bound field test of a space trip—as a member of the Poland Mars Analogue Simulation mission. Since she intends to become a U.S. citizen, she will apply to NASA instead of the European Space Agency.

That Pouplin could be among that first group of Mars travelers says something about the way our space program has evolved over the last 50 years. What started out as a national effort to just get Americans to space and back is now an effort to keep them there. Every day for the last 19 years now, an American has been on assignment in space. Rather than just the test pilots of the 1950s and 1960s, NASA is looking for a new generation of capable Americans who can execute the daily tasks of civilization in space.

The first group of Mars travelers could say something about the way our space program has evolved over the last 50 years. Rather than just the test pilots of the 1950s and 1960s, NASA is looking for a new generation of capable Americans who can execute the daily tasks of civilization in space.

“It’s about time that there’s more diversity in terms of the astronaut corps,” says Michelle Thompson, a planetary-science professor at Purdue who applied for the Canadian Space Agency astronaut-training program in 2017. The native of Cobourg, Ontario, was among the last 32 candidates standing out of more than 3,000 applicants for just two spots. NASA is also accepting a broader range of applicants in terms of life experience—it’s not just fighter pilots or military types they’re considering. “They’re looking for a much more diverse skill set, and that opens it up to scientists and more engineers and people who have diverse backgrounds,” says Thompson. “By doing that, they’re getting people with backgrounds that are more representative of the population and the world and not just this one subgroup of traditionally white men.”

In short, The Right Stuff is no longer the right stuff. It’s bigger. Broader. More inclusive.

Pouplin faces at least another decade of preparation, including finishing her Ph.D. in astrodynamics and space applications, no small task. “There’s a lot of luck involved in the process,” she says, but knows being at Purdue evens the odds. “I think that everybody at Purdue wants to be an astronaut.”

That everyone can is a step forward that began with Armstrong’s.