SLA Crew. Photo courtesy NASA.
SLA Crew. Photo courtesy NASA.

A Natural Progression

Something very special happened when the first covered wagons rumbled across the wide-open prairies of Oklahoma: The adventurous spirit of the pioneer dug its roots deep into the red dirt and became embedded into the very essence of the new frontier.

With the predecessors to space flight being the earliest airplane pilots that first explored the open skies, the state’s historical ties to aviation played a key role in a natural progression into the widest open spaces of all – outer space, the final frontier.

“Both our terrain and weather are ideal for aviation, so Oklahoma has more flyable days in a year than most other states. This has made for many young folks here growing up involved in flight – be they pilots or military or simply enthusiasts. Historically, some of the most prominent folks that were involved in aviation very early on, like Wiley Post, Will Rogers and Clyde Cessna, were Oklahomans,” explains Kim Jones, deputy director curator for the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.

“There’s also the oil connection to aviation, which was huge. In the early days of the Wildcatters, if oil was struck somewhere, they had to get there in a hurry to get the royalties and rights to drill on the land. If they had an airplane and a pilot they could get there in a short period of time. Everybody in the oil business had a connection with aircraft and aviation to get them to these places quick.”

By the late 1950s, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite, into orbit, the sky was no longer the limit, and as the United States entered the race for space, Oklahoma was right there on board from the get-go.

The first American satellite into orbit was manufactured at the then-Douglas Aircraft factory in Tulsa, and after assuming the Senate Space Committee chair, Oklahoma’s own Sen. Robert Kerr wasted no time requesting that the First Peaceful Uses of Space Conference be held in Tulsa.

Former president of Oklahoma City’s Kerr McGee, James Webb, who had just been made NASA’s first administrator, was happy to oblige.

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One day after John F. Kennedy delivered the speech that would commit the nation to putting a man on the moon, the First Peaceful Uses of Space Conference brought all of the prominent names in space from around the world to Tulsa’s fairgrounds, and America’s journey into the unknown took off.