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Q&A with John Norberg

October 16th, 2019

We talked with celebrated writer, author, and humorist John Norberg about the second edition of Wings of Their Dreams: Purdue in Flight, his second book with Purdue University Press this year.

The second edition of Wings of Their Dreams continues and updates the story of an aeronautic odyssey of imagination, science, engineering, technology, adventure, courage, danger, and promise. It is the ever-evolving story of the human spirit taking flight, expanding Purdue’s legacy in aviation’s history.



Q: What originally inspired you to write Wings of Their Dreams?

John Norberg: I started working on it in 1999 as the 2003 centennial of flight approached. Purdue has a great history in flight and space and I thought the centennial of flight would be the perfect time to highlight it. There was no book where the stories of all our historical figures in flight and our astronauts were brought together in one place. As with several of the books I’ve written I talked about the idea with Joe Bennett, then vice president for university relation. This was before I started at Purdue in October of 2000. Joe liked the idea and took it to President Steve Beering who authorized it with financial support from the Purdue Research Foundation.


Book cover with the International Space station and earth in the foreground, and the Moon in the background

“Wings of Their Dreams: Purdue in Flight, Second Edition”

Q: Purdue is often referred to as the “cradle of astronauts”, what do you think are some of the main reasons Purdue has been so successful in producing astronauts?

Norberg: I have researched this and talked with all our astronauts about it. I’ve concluded there are five specific reasons we have so many astronauts.

  • Large and world class schools of engineering and science that attract people who want to become astronauts. NASA has a history of selecting people with engineering and science backgrounds as astronauts. In the early days being an engineer was required.
  • A university airport on the campus. Going back to our earliest astronauts, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan and Roger Chaffee, they had no idea about the future that awaited them. But they knew they liked to fly and the airport was a plus in attracting people interested first in aviation and later space flight. Many of our shuttle astronauts have also been pilots and they were interested in the University airport.
  • A large and outstanding ROTC program. Many astronauts used a military career path to be selected by NASA for space flight. A number of them become military test pilots. Some received ROTC scholarships or came to Purdue on Navy scholarships. The excellence of Purdue’s ROTC programs and the fact that the military was a good career track for become an astronaut attracted people to Purdue who were interested in flight and later space.
  • A master’s degree program in association with the Air Force Academy. In the 1960s one of the most selective programs at the Air Force Academy was a master’s degree program with Purdue. Only the top students were selected. They took some advanced courses at the Academy and upon graduation they came immediately to Purdue and began taking course during summer terms, and there were three of them. With a heavy course load in the fall semester they were able to complete their master’s degree work in January. Seven men who went through this program became astronauts and credit Purdue with helping them succeed. One of the people who came to Purdue on the program became the Hero of the Hudson, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.
  • When Cernan and Chaffee became NASA astronauts in 1963, Purdue had four alumni selected for space missions and the total number of people in the space program was not large. Young people interested in space began to see Purdue as a great place to study to accomplish their goals. Purdue’s reputation as a school of astronauts became even stronger as more and more Boilermakers were selected for the program by NASA.


Q: What’s something you think that people may not know about Purdue’s history in flight?

Norberg: People are always interested in stories about Neil Armstrong and the first landing on the moon. It’s in the book. I also wanted to give readers surprises, stories they didn’t know about. Most people don’t know that a Purdue alumnus worked with the Wright Brothers in the earliest days of flight. They don’t know Purdue graduates taught flight to Billy Mitchell and Hap Arnold – icons in U.S. military. They don’t know one of the nation’s first test pilots was a Purdue graduate, that a Purdue graduate and Charles Lindbergh were involved in a mid-air crash, an incident that marked the first time two pilots parachuted to safety. They don’t know about a Purdue graduate who flew beneath a balloon to the stratosphere. The first pilot to be called “Mr. Space” when there were no astronauts was a Purdue alumnus. The second person to break the sound barrier studied at Purdue (and some say he was the first). There is much more. Wings tells the history of flight and space through the stories of Purdue graduates. I think people will also be surprised that some astronauts apply four or five times before being selected. It is very competitive. The man who assigned astronauts to flights says Grissom would probably have been the first person on the moon, had he survived.


John Norberg


Q: What was the thing that surprised you most when you did the research for this book?

Norberg: If I tell all the surprises they won’t be surprises. The most pleasant surprise was that Neil Armstrong agreed to let me interview him for the book, something he rarely did. It was before Jim Hansen released his excellent biography of Neil, First Man but they were working on it. When I finished Neil’s chapters I sent them to him for accuracy review. He responded that the chapters were good, but he thought they were “about one-third too much me.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. So, I took quotation marks off some of his statements and paraphrased them. I sent it back and he said it was perfect. Shortly after Wings was published, Purdue held an event at the Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Neil was there and spoke. He started telling stories about pilots in Purdue’s history. The first one I recognized as someone in the book. Then there was a second and third. It finally dawned on me that he was repeating the stories from the book. I sent him a copy of the book and he had read it. That surprised me. At the end of his talk he said “All these stories are from John Norberg’s book Wings of Their Dreams that I heartily recommend.” I thanked Neil after he spoke. Someone came up to me and told me I needed to go to the table we were using to sell and sign books. There was a line of people waiting that stretched down the first floor of the museum. Neil wrote a statement for the cover of another book, Spacewalker, I wrote with Purdue astronaut Jerry Ross: “Spacewalker is the book for anyone who ever dreamed of flying in space.” There are many surprises in the stories about the people I wrote about in the book. I hope people enjoy them.


Q: What is new about the second edition of Wings of Their Dreams?

Norberg: Much has changed from 2003 to 2019. All the profiles and stories that were in the first book are in the second edition, but many of them have been updated. I interviewed all our living astronauts again (there are 24 associated with NASA and one commercial astronaut) and updated their information and thoughts. In addition to Grissom and Chaffee, who died in 1967, four other Purdue astronauts have died since 2003 – Janice Voss, Armstrong, Cernan, and Don Williams. I updated those stories. I added profiles on two additional astronauts since 2003. I also added a chapter on Sullenberger’s 2009 landing of a commercial airplane on the Hudson River, saving all the souls onboard.



You can get 30% off of Wings of Their Dreams by entering the discount code PURDUE30 when ordering from our website.