Skip to main content

When SpaceX took off from Cape Canaveral, it might well have carried a bumper sticker reading: IF YOU ARE ON BOARD THIS, THANK A UCF GRADUATE. For half a century, the University of Central Florida has been working to send men and women into space, and space explorations to distant planets.

Today, UCF is known for its many accomplishments, but when the idea of a Central Florida university first came up, backers had their eyes clearly on the stars. Their original proposed name for the proposed school was Space University.

The emphasis on space has only grown at UCF over the last half-century. Nearly 1,000 UCF graduates have received degrees in Aerospace Engineering, and this year there are more than 1,400 aerospace majors.

In the mid-1950s, state officials realized that members of the post-World War II baby boom would soon be reaching college age and the state’s three schools, Florida A&M, the University of Florida and Florida State University could not handle the deluge.

The Legislature created the University of South Florida in the mid-1950s, and leaders in Central Florida began campaigning for the region’s own school.

The space program chose Cape Canaveral for launches, and the nation was fascinated by President John Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon in the 1960s.

Led by politically connected attorney Charlie Gray, Orlando leaders lobbied the Legislature for what they called the nation’s first “Space University.” The Legislature agreed but was vague about where it should go. The new school was to serve an area from Flagler County to Fort Pierce, and west to Polk County. The new school could go in any of nine counties.
Most people thought the new school would be placed in Brevard County, perhaps Cocoa or Titusville to serve the growing space program and its hundreds of contractors. But Gray and Sun Bank president Billy Dial were not going to let the school get away.

The Legislature had created the school, but failed to appropriate any money. Gray and Dial assembled 89 people who raised a million dollars to buy the land in East Orange County — close to Brevard County. The 89 were told they would be repaid, but there were no guarantees. Eventually they got their money back.

Some supporters lobbied for the originally proposed name, Space University, but it was rejected. The state also rejected the name University of Central Florida and went with Florida Technological University to show that the emphasis would be on science and space. A dozen years later the name was changed to the University of Central Florida.

Its first mascot was the Citronaut, a half-orange, half-astronaut creature that was so bad it was replaced briefly by a vulture named Vinny. Vinny’s reign was short-lived and the Golden Knight was brought in. The Citronaut combined the area’s two largest industries at the time, space and oranges. Orange County was still covered with orange trees and the crop sustained the area economy until a new crop of tourists began arriving with Disney in the 1970s.

UCF opened as the space program was winding down. The first moon landing in 1969 was not only the crowning achievement for manned flight, it was the beginning of the end. Layoffs began at the Cape and by 1972 NASA made its last moon flight.

A decade later, the Space Shuttle was born and once again UCF graduates were involved. The shuttle flew for the final time in 2011, and it seemed as if sending men and women into space was over.

Now, SpaceX holds the possibility of a return to space in the United States and one thing is certain, hundreds of UCF graduates will be involved in the missions.

Written by James C. Clark for the Orlando Sentinel.