Updated: Apr 17, 2020
The annual SWOSU Physics Alumni Banquet was held Saturday, March 30th, at the Stafford Air and Space Museum with special guest speaker, Gene Kranz. Kranz served as the Chief Flight Director during the Gemini and Apollo missions, and is best known for his role in directing the successful Mission Control team efforts to save the crew of Apollo 13.
The annual banquet highlights current students in the SWOSU Physics Program as well as brings back many past alumni. A number of SWOSU alumni present for the banquet actually worked for Kranz during the greatest time period in the U.S space program’s history, orchestrating the most amazing technological feat in the 20th Century by taking Americans to the Moon during the 1960s.
The men of Mission Control consisted of a staff of flight controllers and other support personnel monitoring all aspects of each mission, and the Chief Flight Director was in charge of the entire operation on the ground. Housed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Mission Control was manned primarily by young “boys” from the Central and Midwest during the Gemini and Apollo eras.
In fact, during the 1960s, Southwestern State College and Professor J.R. Pratt sent 24 graduates to NASA, with many going to work in Mission Control including John Aaron, Southwestern graduate of 1964, one of the most well-known flight controllers. Aaron is credited with saving Apollo 12 after a lightning strike happened shortly after launch, and he also played a vital role during the Apollo 13 crisis as well.
Kranz stated that the Mission Control “boys” were selected because of their work ethic and ability to successfully finish a task. Many were farm and ranch kids that grew up in western Oklahoma, such as Tom Weichel, Southwestern graduate of 1964. After completing his work with NASA, Mr. Weichel moved back to his family’s farm near Colony, Oklahoma, and still lives there today. Kranz emphasized, “Those farm boys knew how to fix things, so they were exceptional in Mission Control when confronted with problems.” Kranz once set the creed for Mission Control as being “tough and competent.” That definitely fit these graduates from Southwestern Oklahoma State College.
On Saturday afternoon, Museum Director Max Ary provided Kranz with a guided tour of the museum. “During the tour, Tom Weichel walked up behind Kranz, and when Kranz turned, he smiled and said, “Well there’s Tom Weichel!” They shook hands and were all smiles, patting each other on the back and remembering the old times,” Museum Board Member, Bill Moore, stated.
Gene was a farm kid himself, growing up on a farm near Toledo, Ohio. For the momentous role he played in saving the crew of Apollo 13, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It’s incredible to think that these young men went from working the family farm to having one of the greatest and most challenging tasks – the U.S. Space Program literally placed in their hands.
It was Jim Bates, 1962 Southwestern graduate that brought Kranz to Weatherford for the Physics Banquet. Bates first worked for Kranz in 1962 when he reported to NASA. It was a day for remembering, reminiscing and enjoying old friends.
Left to Right: Max Ary (Museum Director), Bill Moore (Board Member), Jim Bates (Graduate of 62), Gene Kranz