January 2, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Purdue’s win against the University of Southern California in the 1967 Rose Bowl game. The theme for the 1967 Tournament of Roses parade was “Travel Tales in Flowers.”
This comes as no surprise considering NASA’s success with the space program and its mission to land a man on the Moon, per mandate of recently slain President Kennedy. In 1967 the American public was waiting with bated breath to see NASA land an astronaut on the Moon. The Soviet Union had entered the race first with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957. President Eisenhower reacted slowly, but eventually set the gears in motion to launch the United States’ first satellite, Explorer 1, four months later on February 1, 1958.
In anticipation of the Rose Bowl game and the guaranteed national media coverage, the Purdue University News Service created promotional documentation that they sent to newspapers, radio stations, and television stations all over the country so that they could accurately tell news stories about Purdue. These news bulletins documented information about the school ranging from the official colors, mascot, and famous alumni to different education programs. Also included were photographs, the float that the students created for the parade, and stories about the astronaut alumni anxiously awaiting their ride to the Moon. One bulletin boasts “Purdue University had aviation ‘in its blood’ before it had Rose Bowl fever.” This bulletin goes on to celebrate the pioneering history of Purdue aviation by telling of early years of the airport and the connection the university has with Amelia Earhart. Another bulletin titled “Purdue Astronauts on Moon, Natural as Apple Pie,” opens with the eerie prediction, “It would be hard to imagine reaching the moon without a piece of Purdue going along.” The bulletin continues talking about how there is as much anticipation for the Apollo mission as there is the Rose Bowl.
The float that Purdue students constructed for the 1967 Tournament of Roses parade honored four of their own Purdue alumni astronauts at the time of the game. The float depicts a Gemini capsule and the names of the four current Purdue astronauts: Armstrong, Cernan, Chaffee, and Grissom, along with the caption, “Alma Mater of Astronauts.”
Footage of 1967 Tournament of Roses Parade Courtesy of Purdue University Athletic Department
Neil A. Armstrong
At the time of the Rose Bowl, Neil Armstrong had already completed the Gemini 8 mission. The significance of this mission was the successful rendezvous and docking with another spacecraft.
By 1967 Gene Cernan had completed the Gemini 9A mission. Lasting from June 3 to June 6, 1966, NASA planned for Cernan to complete a spacewalk, strap into the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), and perform tasks while rendezvousing with an Agena Target Vehicle. This task was not easily completed. Cernan struggled tremendously moving about while spacewalking. His suit became rigged, his visor fogged up, and there were not enough hand-holds and foot-holds on the craft for Cernan to steady himself. To make things worse, the Agena Target Vehicle failed to release its casing, making it impossible for Cernan to complete that part of the mission.
Gus Grissom was the first Purdue graduate that NASA chose to be an astronaut. NASA selected Grissom as part of the Mercury 7. This group of astronauts flew the single piloted Mercury missions. NASA selected Grissom, along with Alan Sheppard and John Glenn, for the first Mercury flight. Sheppard eventually received the seat on the first flight, but Grissom flew the second sub-orbital mission.
At the time of the 1967 Rose Bowl, Roger Chaffee was a rookie. He had not yet completed any spaceflights but was the capsule communicator for the Gemini 4 mission. Chaffee graduated from Purdue in 1957 with Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering. Chaffee was killed along with Gus Grissom and Ed White in the Apollo 1 fire.
The 1967 Rose Bowl was the first time Purdue had ever been to a bowl game, and it was a special milestone to many. The astronauts were just as excited about the 1967 Rose Bowl as other fans. Memorabilia from the game can be found among various astronauts’ papers.
Jerry Ross was not yet an astronaut at the time of the 1967 Rose Bowl. He was a student at Purdue in his junior year and watched the game from the stands. His ticket and program from the Rose Bowl are a part of his papers, which he donated to the Purdue Archives in 2012.
“For Purdue, it was enough that we were there playing in the Rose Bowl. We didn’t have to win it to be satisfied. I had many great football memories after that, but certainly, the 1967 Rose Bowl was the pinnacle of my collegiate career. I felt a great sense of responsibility and was real proud of what we did. Taking the fans and everyone to the Rose Bowl was the greatest highlight, for me. Just being out there, seeing all the people, going to the Christmas party, visiting Universal Studios, eating at Lowery’s. The overriding factor was that we were taking part in something no one else had. We were the first, and there’s something to be said for that.” – Bob Griese, 2002
“The overriding factor was that we were taking part in something no one else had. We were the first, and there’s something to be said for that.” The astronauts most likely felt the same about their mission to reach the Moon.
Footage of 1967 Rose Bowl Game:
The Purdue football team gave Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee each a football signed by the 1967 Purdue Football team. The football pictured here was given to Armstrong. It is part of the Neil A. Armstrong papers, which reside in the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center at Purdue.
This football game represents a moment in the history of the Space Age filled with anticipation. Both the American public and NASA knew that the impending goal of landing a man on the Moon crept ever closer each day. As 1966 came to a close, so did the Gemini series of missions. These missions set the groundwork for the Apollo missions that lay ahead. Gemini proved that astronauts could stay in space for long periods of time and survive a lengthy three-day trip to the Moon. It also proved that spacecraft could be piloted and controlled in space. The Gemini spacecraft was the first spacecraft to have controls similar to an aircraft. The astronauts were able to adapt more easily than the mostly autonomous controls of the Mercury capsule. Living and working in space, rendezvous and docking, and long duration spaceflights became possible due to Gemini.
1967 meant more than a new year and first time opportunities for the participants and attendees at the Rose Bowl. It meant the beginning of a new era in space travel. An era when astronauts went somewhere other than Earth’s orbit, it meant succeeding in trumping the Soviet Union’s Space program once and for all, and finally it meant completing President Kennedy’s grand goal that he set during his tragically cut short presidency. The Moon was within reach.
Visit this page for a history of Purdue’s college football bowl appearances.
Co-authored by Mary A. Sego, Archives Processing Assistant, and Max Campbell, former Graduate Assistant, Purdue University Libraries Archives and Special Collections.