Here’s a little trivia quiz. Name the state that hosted the following events:

  • Robert H. Goddard, the “Father of Modern Rocketry” conducted the bulk of his rocketry experiments

  • Six chimpanzees underwent extensive training to prepare for a trip into outer space

  • John Paul Stapp set a land speed record and earned the title “The Fastest Man Alive”

  • Space Shuttle Columbia was rerouted to a standby spaceport when Edwards Airfield Base and Cape Kennedy were unavailable because of weather

If you answered “New Mexico,” then chalk up a point on your space trivia knowledge. In fact, when it comes to space pioneering, the Land of Enchantment is right up there with Texas and Florida. From the early rockets of Robert H. Goddard to Spaceport America, our state has played many pivotal roles in the country’s efforts to conquer space. 

New Mexico has also contributed many sharp minds to the exploration of space as thousands of her best and brightest have sought careers in the military, NASA, or other space-related companies. A handful has even taken that step outside the safety of Earth’s atmosphere to explore “the last frontier.”  Harrison “Jack” Schmitt of Silver City became the “Last Man on the Moon” in December 1972 as part of the crew of Apollo 17. There’s Mike Mullane of Albuquerque, a three-time space traveler, flying three space shuttle missions between 1984 and 1990. Then, in 1991 and 1994, Albuquerque’s Sid Gutierrez commanded two space shuttle missions, STS-40 Columbia and STS-59 Endeavor.

But we needn’t look all the way to Silver City or Albuquerque to find New Mexico’s astronauts. Eddy County has two of her own space travelers. If you aren’t familiar with them, you should be. Read on.


Capt. Edgar D. Mitchell

Ed Mitchell

Who could have guessed that a rancher’s son from Artesia, New Mexico, would grow up to be the sixth person to set foot on the Moon? Born in Hereford, Texas, Edgar Dean Mitchell grew up in Artesia and graduated from Artesia High School. Having earned his pilot’s license at age 13, he studied at Carnegie Institute of Technology and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, earning Bachelor of Science degrees in Industrial Management and Aeronautical Engineering. He then earned a Doctorate of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964 and graduated first in his class from the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California in 1966.

Ed Mitchell joined the U. S. Navy in 1952, posting an impressive record as a pilot and later as Chief of the Project Management Division of the Navy’s field office for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. In 1966 he was selected by NASA as part of its fifth astronaut group.

Captain Mitchell’s spaceflight was as Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 14, the third lunar landing mission, in February 1971. He and Spacecraft Commander Alan B. Shepard made two lunar explorations, collecting almost 100 pounds of moon samples. The news media made much of their golf game on the moon and Ed’s javelin-type throw of a shovel. But it was on the return trip that Ed Mitchell had the watershed moment of his life.  As he described it, “What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness. I actually felt what has been described as an ecstasy of unity.”

After retiring from NASA in October 1972, Captain Mitchell founded the Institute of Neotic Sciences, a nonprofit that funds research in paranormal phenomena and the nature of consciousness. He became a proponent of the idea of extra-terrestrial visitations and that the supposed aliens who crashed near Roswell had been observing White Sands Missile Range to see what weapons were being developed.

Captain Mitchell was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. The stretch of US Hwy. 285 between Carlsbad and Roswell has been designated the Edgar D. Mitchell Highway by the City of Artesia. He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1979.

Ed Mitchell passed away on February 4, 2016 in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“We went to the Moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians.”


Dr. F. Andrew Gaffney

Drew Gaffney, Crew of STS-40

In the 1964 Carlsbad High School yearbook, Echo, Drew Gaffney appears as a slim, handsome graduating senior whose ambition is listed simply “MD.” To help him accomplish this goal, Drew served as trainer to the Cavemen football and basketball teams and was a member of National Honor Society, Latin Club and Key Club. His favorite teachers were the Latin teacher, Mary Warden, Math teacher Vernon Witten, Porfirio Leyva, Gerome Goldstein, Physics teacher Mr. Martin, and Al Hughes who taught Advanced Composition and Logic. The Carlsbad boy destined for space is quick to give credit to the education he received in his hometown, saying, and “Carlsbad schools were dramatically better than a lot of places in New Mexico — just excellent.” Working as an orderly at the hospital, Drew became acquainted with Dr. Arnold Franzblau, a urologist, and Dr. J. W. Hillsman who had brought him into the world.  These doctors and others became his mentors and friends.

Working at Saint Francis Hospital, Drew felt the need to learn Spanish to communicate with many of the patients.  He asked his grandfather, A. L. Means, to teach him.  Borrowing a book from the high school, Mr. Means gave his grandson a start in learning a language he would study later at Berkeley.  “I became fluent in Spanish and have used the language almost daily throughout my medical career,” he said.

In 1968 Drew graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and then earned a Doctorate of Medicine from the University of New Mexico. Moving to Dallas, now Dr. Gaffney studied cardiology at the University of Texas’ Southwestern Medical Center, and was a faculty associate and an assistant professor of medicine there until 1979. He then served as assistant director of echocardiography at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dallas.

Having fulfilled his high school ambition to become a doctor, Dr. Gaffney set about fulfilling another ambition—to become an astronaut. Drew’s interest in flying went back to Carlsbad as well. His father, Blair, had been a cadet bombardier instructor at the Carlsbad Army Airfield during World War II, and another of his mentors, Dr. Ted Hauser, had a private pilot’s license and took him flying. But how could a young cardiologist get a ride into space in the early days of the space shuttle program?  The man with a plan went to NASA as a Visiting Senior Scientist with the Life Sciences Division and was selected as a payload specialist astronaut on STS-40.

In June 1991, Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off carrying dozens of laboratory rats, a tank full of tiny jellyfish, and a crew of nine, including two New Mexicans.  Albuquerque’s Sid Gutierrez was the pilot and Carlsbad’s Drew Gaffney was one of two payload specialists.  The New Mexicans had some influence in the menu selection when they persuaded the NASA dieticians to include flour tortillas.  The non-crumbly bread proved an ideal choice for the weightless environment of space.

STS-40 Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS 1) was the first Spacelab mission dedicated to biomedical studies.  Prior to liftoff, Dr. Gaffney had a catheter inserted in his arm extending up to his heart to monitor cardiovascular changes and fluid shifts during ascent. This was but one of eighteen experiments completed during the nine-day mission. The flight produced more medical data than any previous NASA flight and contributed greatly to the understanding of the effect of weightlessness on the human body.

Dr. Gaffney served as a colonel in the Texas Air National Guard and has over 50 publications in the areas of cardiovascular regulation and space physiology.  Along with numerous NASA awards and medals, he also received the Excellence in Education Award from Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.   He finished out his medical career at Vanderbilt University, from which he became a Professor Emeritus a year ago.  In 1996, he was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo and in 2017 became a member of the first class of honorees in the City of Carlsbad Hall of Fame.

I first met Drew Gaffney when his brother, Pat, married my sister, Katy, in 1970.  The last time I saw him was at Pat’s memorial service in 2016.  In the interim, I’ve been witness to his single-minded dedication to achieving his goals.  Despite his success, he has remained congenial, humble, and ever mindful of the debt he owes his hometown.  Take a walk down to the rocket slide at the Carlsbad Municipal Beach and you’ll see a monument honoring his achievement.  Then study the logo of STS-40.

You’ll note the mission number along with the Spacelab Life Sciences 1 designation, the names of the astronauts, Davinci’s Vitruvian Man, the shuttle crossing a map of Earth, and the seven stars for the original Mercury astronauts.  Coming over the horizon is the rising sun.  It sure looks a lot like the New Mexico flag’s Zia sun.  Well done, Dr. Gaffney.



Why We Explore

Human Space Exploration

Humanity’s interest in the heavens has been universal and enduring. Humans are driven to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then push further. The intangible desire to explore and challenge the boundaries of what we know and where we have been has provided benefits to our society for centuries.

Human space exploration helps to address fundamental questions about our place in the Universe and the history of our solar system. Through addressing the challenges related to human space exploration we expand technology, create new industries, and help to foster a peaceful connection with other nations. Curiosity and exploration are vital to the human spirit and accepting the challenge of going deeper into space will invite the citizens of the world today and the generations of tomorrow to join NASA on this exciting journey.