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Astronomers group celebrates Iowa's 'unheralded' contributions to space travel for Apollo 13 50-year anniversary

Historian David V. Wendell of Marion holds a model of the Command Module and Command Service Module of Apollo 13, the th
Historian David V. Wendell of Marion holds a model of the Command Module and Command Service Module of Apollo 13, the third manned Apollo spaceflight. April 11 is the 50th anniversary of the launch of the mission, in which an explosion onboard the spacecraft left the fate of three astronauts unknown for seven days as people around the world feared they may never make it back to Earth. (Photo courtesy of David V. Wendell)
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ELY — A local astronomers group is celebrating the “major yet unheralded roles” played by Iowa’s three state universities in the history of astronomy and space travel in connection with the Apollo 13 50-year anniversary.

During the Apollo 13 mission, which was April 11 to 17, 1970, an explosion on board the spacecraft left the fate of three astronauts unknown for seven days as people around the world feared they may never make it back to earth.

Historian David V. Wendell, curator of an exhibit called “Our Finest Hours: Apollo XIII and Iowa’s Universities in Space Exploration,” had planned an event with panel discussion on the date of the launch — April 11 — at the astronomical research complex operated by the Cedar Amateur Astronomers, 1365 Ivanhoe Road, in rural Ely. The COVID-19 crisis has put the event in doubt, as some of his planned speakers backed out.

Wendell still hoped to pay tribute to Iowa’s space travel efforts in conjunction with the anniversary.

“Perhaps the virus, therefore, gives us a deeper insight into the psyche of what it was like to be on that fateful flight not knowing if one would survive or not,” Wendell said. “Just as today, on Earth, we wonder in the back of our mind if we will make it safely through a daunting ordeal, they, too, faced this dilemma of uncertainty, but came through successfully.”

Wendell highlighted the contributions of three scholars:

Donald Gurnett

Gurnett, professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Iowa, was a protege of James Van Allen, the UI professor who designed and built the experimental equipment aboard Explorer 1, America’s first man-made satellite to circle the Earth. Gurnett went on to assist and engineer experiments on board Injun 1, America’s first satellite designed by a college, and to create the instruments aboard the Voyager Spacecraft, the first man-made object to fly out of the solar system and into interstellar space.

The event also was to celebrate Gurnett’s 80th birthday on April 11.

Lee Ann Willson

Willson, professor emeritus of astronomy at Iowa State University, has been one of the nation’s leading experts in variable star research in this century and the latter half of the last. Variable stars are those that vary in intensity. She has used the world’s most advanced telescopes, including Hubble, to identify planets in orbit around stars far distant from our solar system.

Siobahn Morgan

Morgan, chairwoman of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Northern Iowa, is recognized as one of the state’s leading authorities on stellar pulsation in an effort to understand how stars evolve and its implication for the future of our planet, as well as others like it in the universe.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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