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KC Alumnus Norm Haynes Shares NASA Adventures at Air Zoo Lecture

Norman Haynes, Kalamazoo Central class of 1954, was at the Air Zoo in September to kick off its Adult Discovery Series. While he wasn’t particularly interested in science when he was a student at Kalamazoo Central — he preferred to focus on sports and girls when he was a high schooler — he eventually studied engineering in college. 

Haynes received his bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University in 1959 (after spending his first year in college at Western Michigan University) and his master of science degree from the University of Southern California in 1961. 

He graduated at an opportune time — just as the space race was kicking off. NASA launched in 1958, and he joined the Jet Propulsion Lab as a new college grad in 1959. 

“I had no idea what we would be doing. I didn’t know about the planets or spacecraft — we didn’t have spacecraft in 1959.” 

He eventually became the director of Mars Exploration at the Jet Propulsion Lab, playing an instrumental role in the Mariner 4 mission in 1965 and the Voyager 2 mission in 1977. 

Mariner 4 launched in November 1964 and almost eight months later it transmitted its first picture of Mars - the first photograph ever taken of another planet. 

He recalled that scientists thought that Mars had huge swaths of vegetation, but he was among the first to see the photos that showed a barren planet filled with craters. When the last picture came into the lab the conversation was, “We have a 20 minute head start on the rest of the lab to find a better shot.”

“It was a technical success, even though the science was disappointing,” Haynes said. 

The Voyager missions began in 1963 in the office next to his. While working on calculating gravitational assisted trajectories, two students realized that between 1976 and 1978 there would be a unique alignment of Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune on one side of the sun, which happened once every 75 years. Voyager 2 launched in 1977. 

In 1989, Voyager 2 conducted the first and only fly by of Neptune — and is still traveling in space. It famously carries a plaque with a message crafted by American astronomer Carl Sagan. 

Audience members at Haynes' talk asked about his biggest heartbreaks on the job. He said that when they started the space race, the team became almost immune to failure — because “we had colossal failures” when the program started. There were so many failures that engineers and scientists became “a little used to them.” 

But the heartbreak he’ll never forget is the Challenger disaster which killed seven crew members, “because there were people involved, human lives, including a school teacher.” 

What comes next for space exploration? He anticipates a push to collect samples from Mars, but said it will be a 10-15 year challenge requiring multiple trips and spacecraft. And, he said, scientists will be looking for life on other planets, including those outside of our solar system. 

“The future will all be biology oriented. We’ve done the physics. We’re looking for life. We don’t want to be alone.