Hans Mark in office
Professor Hans Mark in his office at the UT Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics building.

 "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.

Hans Mark, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, dedicated his career to advancing science and technology across many areas. He served as the Director of NASA's Ames Research Center, the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the Secretary of the United States Air Force, Deputy Administrator of NASA and Director of Defense Research and Engineering. He was in 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.

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 during the 1960s -1980s. And when Mark joined The University of Texas at Austin he dedicated his work to developing UT’s scientific and technology prowess, first as a chancellor and then as an aerospace engineering professor, a position he has held for almost the past 15 years.

Now, after a long career that intersects with national history, Mark is retiring this summer. However, a look back reveals that Mark’s impact on technology andperhaps most importantlythe people around him, will make Hans Mark an important influence on the science and technology to come. 

Discovering Nuclear Science: The Early Years

Mark 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 The University of California, Berkeley 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 said.

Mark would have his chance in 1955. After receiving his undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, marrying fellow Berkeley student 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.

On a much less official note, he also started working with Dick Post, who later founded a semiconductor company, NEXX Systems. Post was a freshman at Berkeley who needed a place to work on his homemade Van de Graff generator. Mark opened his nuclear engineering lab to him and provided occasional technical support. But Mark's most valuable advice to Post was on people: how to work with people, how to manage people, and how to develop yourself as a person and scientist.

"I think my view is very similar to Hans' world view," Post said, who is now retired. "And I can't say I learned it all from him, but certainly if I look at the parallels of what I heard him tell me and my own experience in how I ran my research programs at MIT and businesses, they're very similar."

Championing Technology: The NASA Years

Mark's career would shift from academic nuclear research to government aeronautics and space development starting in 1968, when Mark 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 to 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.

Hans Mark in control room
Hans Mark shown in the NASA control room. Mark oversaw fourteen space shuttle flights as Deputy Administrator of NASA.

 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 that may encounter the probe.

"I had gotten to know Carl Sagan quite well because he was a postdoctoral fellow while I was on the faculty at Berkeley," Mark said. "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.

Serving Academia: The Texas Years

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 multi-million 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 grounds keepers 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 barbeque.

Michael Webber, a struggling aerospace and Plan II major, and member of the Longhorn Band, attended the barbeque and 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 said.

"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."

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 said. "And it was true."

Hans Mark with LUNAR students
Hans Mark with members of Leadership, Undergraduate Networking And Recruitment (LUNAR) Council, a means for current undergraduates to provide continuous feedback to the department.

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 on teaching. 

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 said. "And I feel like that's what Dr. Mark was doing with me."

The full version of this story can be found in our print edition of The Longhorn Liftoff.