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What You Accomplish When Discovery is in Your DNA

From the moon landing to the Space Station to teaching young aerospace engineers, retiring professor Hans Mark forged an extraordinary career. We explore the highlights.

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Why do we explore space? Hans Mark says it’s because “discovery is in our DNA.”

The legendary aerospace engineering professor knows a thing or two about discovery.

Hans Mark University of Texas

Hans Mark, center, with fellow aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics professor Wallace Fowler and a student at a system engineering design class fly-off.

He was in mission control for the first moon landing (45 years ago on July 20) and the first space shuttle launch, taught Carl Sagan, pushed President Ronald Reagan to adopt the Space Station program and is still pushing to this day for a manned mission to Mars.

“To explore is an essential part of life, and a great nation has the obligation to explore,” Mark said in an in-depth story about his legacy on the Cockrell School of Engineering website.

After a distinguished career that spanned six decades and placed him on the front lines of technological revolutions, the beloved engineering professor will retire from the university this summer.

In honor of his extraordinary career, we’re looking back at 10 of his most monumental accomplishments.

1940: Escaped Nazi Germany

Mark’s remarkable journey began long before he cracked open his first science textbook.

He was born in 1929 in Mannheim, Germany, and as a young boy he witnessed violent clashes between fascist and communist gangs and saw his Jewish father imprisoned for advocating Nazi resistance. A bribe and his father’s expertise in synthetic chemistry (he is now known as the father of polymer science) secured him and his family a home in the U.S.

Mark would later earn physics degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and MIT.

1969-77: Served as Director of NASA Ames Research Center

After an early career in academic nuclear research and teaching posts at Berkeley and MIT, Mark shifted to government aeronautics and space development.

At Ames Mark managed the center’s research and applications efforts in aeronautics, space science, life science and space technology and broadened the center’s influence within NASA and the wider aerospace community.* The position also earned him a seat in the mission control room during Apollo 11’s historic moon landing.

(Related: UT Prof Says Moon Landing Anniversary Shows Us that NASA and Space Exploration are Worth Their Costs)

1972: Oversaw Development and Launch of the First Manmade Object to Leave the Solar System

Pioneer 10 was a space probe that the NASA Ames lab designed to fly past the asteroid belt, Jupiter and Saturn to collect data and images.

With a little help from famed astrophysicist and Mark’s former student, Carl Sagan, Mark secretly attached a message onto Pioneer 10 to introduce the human race to any extraterrestrials that may encounter the probe.

Listen to Hans Mark tell the story of the plaque he and Sagan sneaked onto the Pioneer 10.

1976: Elected to the National Academy of Engineering

Election to the NAE is among the highest professional distinctions bestowed upon an engineer. Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice or education.

1979-81: Named Secretary of the U.S. Air Force by President Jimmy Carter

“I had some misgivings because my [previous] job as under secretary permitted me to exert considerable influence on the management of the nation’s space program,” Mark wrote in his autobiography, “The Space Station: A Personal Journey.” He decided to accept because “the opportunity to learn something about the broader issues related to our national security was enough to override my doubts. In addition, as secretary, I would have greater influence on the development of the appropriate organizations within the Air Force concerned with the development and operation of space systems.”

1981-84: Served as Deputy Administrator of NASA

In addition to being a key player in the push to develop the Space Station, Mark oversaw 14 space shuttle flights.

Hans Mark Deputy Administrator of NASA

Hans Mark in NASA’s Mission Operations Control Center at the Johnson Space Center. 

1984-92: Joined the University of Texas System as Chancellor

Chancellor Mark had three big goals: to increase research funding, attract economically lucrative technology companies to Austin, and reach out to Texas’ booming Hispanic population. By the time he left the position in 1992, Mark had doubled the UT System’s research budget, helped bring microchip consortium SEMATECH to Austin and established The University of Texas-Pan American on the Texas-Mexico border.

1988-98, 2001-14: Professor of Aerospace Engineering at UT Austin

Mark divided most of his remaining career between teaching and consulting in Washington, D.C. Since 2001 he has been a consistent part of UT’s aerospace undergraduate experience, having made teaching an introductory aerospace class his main objective. It’s many students’ first taste of the field.

“I teach them aerospace and then I tell them jokes,” Mark says.

In honor of his retirement, former students and friends have launched an effort to raise $1 million to establish the Hans Mark Scholars Endowment in Engineering Honors, which will provide full tuition to the best and brightest undergraduate engineering students.

Hans Mark University of Texas

Mark in his office.

1998-2001: Served as Director of Defense Research and Engineering in the U.S. Department of Defense

During his time at the Pentagon, Mark was responsible for developing policies, providing guidance and managing atomic energy, chemical, and biological defense plans and programs.

2012: Inducted into Air Force Space and Missile Pioneer Hall of Fame

Mark was recognized for his advocacy of the establishment of an Air Force major command for space operations, initiating plans for a new military control facility and fostering military orbital missions using the space shuttle.

*Source: NASA

Reporting contributed by Monica Kortsha and Cockrell School of Engineering staff.