If the Apollo 11 mission had never happened, UCF scientist and alum Phil Metzger ’00MS ’05PhD may never have pursued a career that today has him working on ways to mine water from the moon and engineer ways rovers can traverse across other planets such as Mars.

The son of a NASA contractor who worked on the Apollo missions, Metzger’s life parallels a nation’s love affair with space, which appears on the cusp of a new dawn.

Metzger, who is based at UCF’s Florida Space Institute, is working on multiple projects with NASA and commercial companies to figure out how to safely get astronauts into space and how to make a sustainable go at living off world.

“I remember Apollo 11 clearly,” Metzger says. “I couldn’t see over everyone’s head in the street, so I climbed the flag pole at the Titusville Post Office so I could see. It was … historic.”

“I couldn’t see over everyone’s head in the street, so I climbed the flag pole at the Titusville Post Office so I could see. It was … historic.” — UCF scientist Phil Metzger on memories of Apollo 11 mission

Metzger was 7 and beating the Russians to the moon was what everyone in his Titusville neighborhood talked about.

“Everyone’s parents were either engineers or scientists who worked at the cape,” he says. “It was the norm and everything stopped to watch each attempt. Winnebagos would crowd the streets for each launch. I can still hear Walter Cronkite’s voice crackling on the radio before the countdowns and the echo from all the radios going at once.”

Metzger’s father retired from the U.S. Air Force to become a NASA contractor, and he worked as a quality control inspector for all the Apollo missions. His mother was an early childhood education teacher. But life in the Metzger family revolved around the space race — even at Christmas time.

Metzger had a Major Matt Mason action figure Mattel sold beginning in 1966. Metzger and his sister also owned every paper model of the satellites launched from the Cape during his childhood. They hung from the ceiling in his bedroom.

old photograph of the bottom of Apollo 11 and people walking around it on a sunny day
UCF scientist and alum Phil Metzger, age 7 (brunette child, center), visits the Cape during the Apollo era. Metzger’s father worked on all the Apollo missions for NASA.

History in the Making

“Apollo 11 was hugely important,” Metzger says.

The historical context is also important to understand why we got to the moon so quickly and to understand why it’s taken us 50 years plus to get back.

“Fear is a powerful motivator,” he says. “We were afraid of the Russians. The Cold War was on and I remember the drills in school where you had to duck under your desk. Anyway, that fear translated into political will and that meant a lot of money for NASA, which is why we moved so quickly. As the political pressure diminished, so did funding and I think that’s why we’ve slowed down a bit.”

Add the tragic accidents during the space shuttle era that cost astronauts their lives, and it’s no surprise things slowed down. But without embracing that challenge President John F. Kennedy made to get a man on the moon within a decade and being the brash and bold America of that time, we would have never had the Shuttle program and missions like Voyager and others that began charting the solar system and laying the ground work for today.

The amount of technology developed and the knowledge gained for multiple space missions since the Apollo era has improved life on Earth and inspired generations of astronauts, scientists and engineers that despite the risks, continue to forge ahead — including Metzger.

Man with beard wearing gray polo shirt stands in front of dirt samples and holds two post cards in hand
Phil Metzger’s nearly three-decade career with NASA included working on the space shuttle program and the International Space Station. Here, he shows off Apollo 11 mementos from his childhood.

Inspiring an individual, a nation and the world

He graduated from high school and went onto Auburn University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He returned to his hometown and was a spacecraft-systems engineer on the space shuttle vehicle processing team at Kennedy Space Center.

His almost 30 years with NASA included working on the shuttle program, the International Space Station and various other projects. From 2002-14 he was a senior research physicist and co-founded Swamp Works, a technology innovation lab at KSC. Think of Swamp Works as the cool lab that trouble shoots some of the most difficult problems facing space travel. He led $5.4 million in research and technology projects during his 12-year tenure at Swamp Works.

In between he earned a master’s degree in physics and doctorate in physics from UCF. In 2014, he joined UCF’s Florida Space Institute where he continues to work on out-of-this-world projects that once seemed science fiction but are quickly turning into science fact.

It’s been a great ride, especially seeing how Apollo not only fueled his passion for space research, but influenced UCF’s early days and charged the nation and the world to reach beyond the stars.

UCF’s many connections to space include management of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

UCF Connections Today

Today, NASA has dozens of missions that push the boundaries and UCF is a part of many of those missions from New Horizons, which gave us a whole new look at Pluto and to OSIRIS Rex, which will snag a sample of a near-Earth-asteroid next year. UCF is also working with new and bold commercial companies such as Space X, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic that have stepped up the pace since the space shuttle program concluded in 2011. UCF is working with several other industry and academic partners to help prepare for a trip back to the Moon and beyond.

These projects include among others:

“Our planetary expertise will play a central role for the future of space and that’s something UCF can be proud of.” — Phil Metzger

The impact on the world can still be felt today from the sheer existence of the International Space Station to most world powers investing in their own space agencies.

Metzger says it is good to look back and celebrate our success, but that the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 should really help us refocus and redouble our efforts toward the future.

“I’m excited to be part of the UCF team,” he says. “We’re building a reputation as a space resource. The space economy is real. The players are investing in it now. Our planetary expertise will play a central role for the future of space and that’s something UCF can be proud of. We just need to remind people about the science and inspire the next generations to come.”