‘Discovery is in our DNA’: Inside Hans Mark’s Incredible Career

After fleeing Nazi Germany for a life in the U.S., UT engineering professor Hans Mark worked in Mission Control during the first moon landing, pushed President Reagan to adopt the Space Station program, and helped turn UT into a research powerhouse.

Mark, Hans 2007 in his office

This story first appeared in The Longhorn Liftoff

“Because it’s in our DNA.”

This is Hans Mark’s simple answer to why humans should explore and discover.

“To explore is an essential part of life, and a great nation has the obligation to explore,” he says.

In a career spanning six decades, Mark worked in NASA’s Mission Control for the first moon landing and first space shuttle launch, led teams that developed aircraft and space probes, pushed President Reagan to adopt the Space Station program, and is pushing to this day for a manned mission to Mars. He’s also had a storied career on the Forty Acres, including service as chancellor of the UT System and as a professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics.

In a single descriptor, Mark is a champion for technological superiority.

It’s through advanced technology that Mark thought the United States could win the Cold War—the primary objective of his work from the 1960s-80s. And when Mark joined the University of Texas, he dedicated his work to developing UT’s scientific and technological prowess.

Now, after a long career that intersects with national history, Mark is retiring this summer. But it’s clear that the impact he’s left on the academic and scientific communities will be felt for decades to come.

Mark was born in 1929 in Mannheim, Germany, and as a young boy witnessed violent clashes between fascist and communist gangs and the assassination of the head of the Austrian government by the Nazis. His own father, who was of Jewish heritage, was thrown in prison for advocating Nazi resistance. A bribe secured the elder Mark’s release, and his expertise in synthetic chemistry secured his family a home in the United States.


The violence left Mark with a lifelong hatred for fascism and communism, and when it was time to leave for college in 1947, he chose UC-Berkely with dreams of working with the likes of Ernest Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer, key figures in the development and creation of the atomic bomb that brought World War II to a decisive end.

“I badly wanted to join this group of people and learn the new technology that had such a profound effect on the outcome of the war,” Mark says.

Mark would have his chance in 1955. After receiving his undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, marrying Berkeley classmate Marion “Bun” Thorpe, and earning his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mark returned to California to conduct nuclear weapons research alongside Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller at Lawrence Livermore Lab.

Mark’s career would shift from academic nuclear research to government aeronautics and space development starting in 1968, when he was asked to become the director of the NASA-Ames Research Center. It would continue to be his main objective when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to Secretary of Air Force in 1979, and when President Ronald Reagan appointed him Deputy Administrator of NASA in 1981.

These positions sometimes made Mark privy to secret technology used for spying and striking, and at other times had him overseeing the highly publicized probes and rockets of the Space Race. In some cases the two would intersect; the blunt body design used on intercontinental missiles was also used on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft.

One of the great missions of discovery at this time was the development and launch of Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, space probes that the Ames lab designed to fly past the asteroid belt, Jupiter and Saturn to collect data and images. But thanks to some under-the-radar tinkering from Mark, serving as Director of Research at NASA’s Ames Research Center at the time, and Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and host of the popular PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the Pioneer 10 probe was tasked with the additional duty of introducing the human race to any extraterrestrials it might encounter.

hans-mark-control-room“I had gotten to know Carl Sagan quite well because he was a postdoctoral fellow while I was on the faculty at Berkeley,” Mark says. “So, some years later, I called him up and said we’re going to fly Pioneer 10 past Jupiter. Why don’t you come on out and do a television show on that?”

Sagan agreed, but called about two months before launch with plans that were much different from a TV special. Mark recounts the conversation as going something like this:

Sagan: “We got to put a plaque on this thing.”
Mark: “What are you talking about?”
Sagan: “You know, somebody is going to find this thing out there.”
Mark: “Carl, you’re crazy.”
Sagan: “Yeah, but it’s cheap.”

Mark agreed.

Linda Salzman, an artist and Sagan’s wife at the time, drew up the now iconic image for the 6-by-9-inch aluminum plaque that would be strapped on to the probe. Save for NASA insider John Naugle, Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Science, the plaque was kept a secret. It stayed that way until the probe was launched on March 2, 1972 and on its way to Jupiter.

In the final years of the Cold War, Mark became interested in returning to academia. UT happened to be looking for a chancellor and Mark applied for the job. He got it. And in 1984 he had officially gone to Texas to become chancellor of the UT System.

Mark had three big goals for the university: to increase research funding, attract economically lucrative technology companies to Austin, and reach out to Texas’ booming Hispanic population. By the time he stepped down from the position in 1992 he had made great progress; the UT System’s research budget had doubled and the microchip consortium SEMATECH had been persuaded to move to Austin, supported by a multimillion dollar UT investment, and the University of Texas-Pan American, located on the Texas-Mexico border, had been established.

During Mark’s time as chancellor he also made an effort to personally recognize important members of the UT community by opening up the Bauer House, the historic residence of UT’s chancellors. He hosted fish fries for UT’s buildings and groundskeepers, and dinners for the faculty and staff of each department. On one such occasion he invited the entire Longhorn Band and Longhorn Cheerleaders to his home for a barbecue.

A struggling aerospace and Plan II major and member of the Longhorn Band named Michael Webber attended the barbecue. He wrote Mark a thank-you note for hosting the event. In the note, he mentioned that he was considering dropping his aerospace major.

He got a call from Mark’s secretary the next day requesting a meeting with the chancellor.

“This is very intimidating for a sophomore. I didn’t even own a coat and tie and I had to go meet with the chancellor in his downtown office,” Webber remembers.

“And he basically talked me out of dropping out which is really remarkable, because I was making C grades that I shouldn’t have been making.”

Hans Mark LUNAR students

Mark arranged an internship at NASA for Webber, who “got enthused, got more serious, and graduated with all sorts of honors.” Mark continued to aid Webber, as an advisor on his undergraduate thesis, a professor in two classes, and a reference for graduate school.

Webber is now Dr. Michael Webber (a title that Mark called Webber by even as an undergraduate), the Deputy Director of UT’s Energy Institute and Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering. He credits the first intervention of Mark as the moment that saved his career.

“He really reached down and grabbed me and said you’ve got to do better. Don’t give up and you’ll like it,” Webber says. “And it was true.”

After his chancellorship, Mark divided the rest of the 1990s between teaching aerospace and history courses at UT and advising in Washington. But since 2001 Mark has been a consistent part of the 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.

But if past experience holds true, it’s likely that Mark has done much, much more.

After all, to be a true champion in technology requires not only the knowledge to make airplanes and probes work, but the wisdom to realize that it’s people that make it all possible—from the Jobs-esque engineers at Ames, to a brilliant but immature undergraduate at UC Berkeley, to a struggling aerospace student questioning his future.

“This is part of the power of being a professor: you can make someone feel very special. You can see something in the student that they don’t see themselves. You can encourage them to strive higher, to achieve more,” Webber says. “And I feel like that’s what Dr. Mark was doing with me.”

Photos from top: Hans Mark in his UT office; as an undergraduate at Berkeley in the 1950s; at Mission Control in the 1960s; and with UT students.

In honor of Mark’s upcoming retirement and 85th birthday, former students and friends are launching an effort to raise $1 million to establish the Hans Mark Scholarship. Learn more here.


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