From the Sun Belt to the Stars

If you’re reading this, it has been at least 50 years since man first landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on its surface, and Michael Collins got the Columbia all to himself for a few hours.

Over the next 45 years, NASA sent humans to space nearly every year. Six of them held degrees from Sun Belt Conference universities.

  1. Robert L. Stewart – M.S., Univ. of Texas-Arlington 1972
  2. James D. Halsell – M.S., Troy State University 1983
  3. William G. Gregory – M.S., Troy State University 1984
  4. Kevin R. Kregel – M.S., Troy State University 1988
  5. Kalpana Chawla – M.S., Univ. of Texas-Arlington 1984
  6. Kevin A. Ford – M.S., Troy State University, 1989

Two schools own this list, and it’s no surprise when you consider they’re the two oldest institutions in the conference. Troy was established in 1887, and UTA in 1895.

Sure, these are all Masters’ degrees, but it’s also worth noting that NASA’s origins begin with an organization founded in 1915. At that point, UTA was only 20 years old, and four Sun Belt schools didn’t exist yet.

Each of these astronauts has his or her own story worth reading. That said, here’s an interesting note about each person’s work.

  • Robert Stewart was the second-ever astronaut to participate in an untethered spacewalk, in the mission immediately following Bruce McCandless’s famous flight.
  • James Halsell was commander of both STS-83 and STS-94, the only two missions in history to feature the exact same crew.
  • William Gregory‘s only spaceflight was the longest spaceflight for the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
  • Kevin Kregel and Kalpana Chawla were both part of the STS-87 mission in 1997.
  • Kevin Ford‘s first spaceflight was STS-128, the last time the Space Shuttle was used to swap out ISS crew members.

I searched and searched for any other Sun Belt ties to spaceflight, and these were the only actual astronauts to come up. That said, I found some other figures related to space history with Sun Belt ties:

  1. Albert H. Crews, Jr. – B.S., Southwestern Louisiana Institute 1950
  2. Jay F. Honeycutt – B.S., University of Southwestern Louisiana 1959?
  3. Alex McCool – B.S., University of Southwestern Louisiana
  4. Wendy Okolo – B.S., Univ. of Texas-Arlington 2010

If you don’t know your Sun Belt history, the first three are all previous names for the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Incidentally, ULL is the third-oldest college in the Sun Belt.

  • Albert Crews was a test pilot for two different programs (The Dino-Saur and the MOL), which were both canceled.
  • Jay Honeycutt was director of the John F. Kennedy Space Center for six years.
  • Alex McCool helped design the Saturn rocket’s propulsion system, and he contributed to the development of Skylab.
  • Wendy Okolo is the first black woman to get a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from UTA.
  • Just this year, Okolo literally won “The Most Promising Engineer in Government” Award. Seriously.

Finally, in my search for literally any Sun Belt ties, I found that one astronaut, Thomas Akers, taught at Troy for part of his NASA training. Considering every other person on this list attended the school in some way, I felt that was somewhat cheating.

I know I searched for hours to come up with this tiny list. If you know for a fact I missed a Sun Belt astronaut, please for the love of Apollo let me know on Twitter.


Shout out to Colin Cahill, who gave me the idea for this article. You can hear the two of us on The Bench Boys Podcast; Season 2 is coming soon.

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