a group of people stand in front of a large check
(L-R) Members of UAH Space Hardware Club; Dr. Shankar Mahalingam, UAH Dean, College of Engineering; Jeff Lancaster; Leslie Boyette; Hill Rowan, UAH Senior Development Officer; Esther Lancaster; Dr. Helen Lien, UAH Senior Development Officer.
Michael Mercier | UAH

Indiana native Ronald “Ron” Lee Lancaster, who passed away on May 15, 2022, held many titles: husband, father, friend, mentor, missionary, and engineer. “He was so many things to so many people,” son Jeff Lancaster remembers, adding that his father was always giving of his time. “If the opportunity presented itself, he would help anyone,” Jeff continues, noting that Ron would help neighbors work on their homes or he’d provide a meal to a person down on their luck. That, and Ron’s pride and passion for the U.S. space program, are reasons why Esther Lancaster, Ron’s wife of nearly 65 years, pledged $25,000 to The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, to establish a scholarship for students pursuing mechanical or aerospace engineering. The recipient should be an upper-level undergraduate student with the ambition to work in the aerospace industry and who is ideally an active member of UAH’s Space Hardware Club (SHC). This gift, Ron’s family says, is a way to help the next generation advance themselves in the space industry while honoring Ron’s legacy. “If they have the desire and passion to pursue this career, we want to help,” Jeff says.

Amber Rose Porteous, the president of the SHC, says that gifts like this are crucial to student growth and the advancement of space exploration: “Space exploration is huge in furthering humanity‘s understanding of the natural world because it would not only allow us to explore what we do not know about space but also bring back information that will help us back on Earth. This scholarship is so important in encouraging students to further their education outside of the classroom in order to help out with this huge cause once they are done with their degree.”

Courtesy Jeff Lancaster

College of Engineering dean, Dr. Shankar Mahalingam, recognizes the value of such a gift: “Ron Lancaster was a pioneer in the space industry, having worked on the early Atlas-Mercury and Gemini missions and the Saturn V rocket, testing the Lunar Rover, and redesigning the faulty O-ring that caused the Challenger disaster. We are truly honored and appreciative of the generosity of his wife, Esther, and his family, for establishing the Ronald Lee Lancaster Memorial Scholarship as a way of preserving Ron's legacy. This scholarship will make a lasting impact on engineering students pursuing studies pertaining to aerospace at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.”

Ron entered the burgeoning space industry right as President John F. Kennedy sought to land a man on the moon by 1970. Ron graduated from high school in 1955, and in some of his papers and oral histories, which are curated in the UAH Archives, Ron notes that his family didn’t have the money to send him to college. However, his principal saw his potential and told him about the Indiana Institute of Technology, where he could take classes as he could afford them. Esther remembers that it still wasn’t easy. “We sacrificed a lot,” she says. “He was halfway through school when we got married [in 1957], and we had a difficult time paying for school.”

Ron graduated from college in 1960 with an aeronautical engineering degree. When he found jobs scarce in Indiana, he traveled to Florida where he heard they needed engineers to work on the space program. In Cocoa Beach, Florida, he saw an ad for aerospace engineers and applied. He was hired after his first interview, and his wife and children moved from Indiana to Florida that year. As Ron says in his oral history, “I was in hog heaven.” While in Florida, Ron worked on several notable and important space missions, including the Mercury-Atlas 6 launch, which held astronaut John Glenn. “It was very exciting,” Esther notes.

In 1963, Ron and his family moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where they built a house. Ron worked for Boeing on the Saturn V rocket and the design and testing of the lunar rover that landed on the moon. The rover was only 17 months in construction from contract to launch from the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. The design was innovative, its piano-wire tires and folding capability meant it could deploy from the lunar module and adjust for the one-sixth gravity and rough terrain on the moon. Ron recalls in his archived papers that work was rushed, with a great deal of travel, little sleep, and time away from his family. But, Esther reminds, he had a good team and he loved the work. Ron also participated in the astronaut training for the operation of the rover with Commander David Scott and pilot James Irwin. When Apollo 15 launched in July 1971, the rover almost didn’t work because the astronauts neglected to pull a specific pin that released the rover from the lunar module. Ron had to watch the event unfold on TV, knowing what the problem was but unable to do anything about it. Fortunately, the astronauts were able to solve the problem and use the rover as intended.

Courtesy Ron Lancaster | UAH Archives

As the space program dwindled in the following years, Ron found a new job with Wyle Laboratories. After the 1986 Challenger disaster, in which the failure of two redundant O-ring seals caused the shuttle to fatally break apart, Ron and his team tested and redesigned the O-ring to prevent future tragedies. He continued to work and travel with Wyle Laboratories until his retirement in 1999.

Esther remembers that Ron was proud of his role in the space program and he wanted that history saved. “He wanted young people to know how the program got started,” Esther says, adding, “That’s why he wanted to give his photos and papers to the UAH Archives.” She also shares that it was Ron’s love of the space program that inspired them to create the scholarship. “He worked even when he didn’t have to because he loved the work so much. We wanted to honor his name at UAH because of his work on the space program and for who he was.”

And while he was very good at his job, Ron wasn’t just an engineer. As exacting and articulate as he was, Jeff says, he also was a giving person with a sense of humor. In addition to being a skilled carpenter, skills he used by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, Ron enjoyed traveling and camping, and he was an active member of his church, where he served on mission trips to build churches in the U.S. and to help residents in Haiti. Still, space was on his mind, even in his later years. “Even when the disease [Alzheimer’s] took other things, the last things to go were his stories about working in the space program,” Esther remembers. “So if we can make it easier for someone else [to go to school] and work in space engineering, we want to do that.”

Jeff’s daughter, Taylor Lancaster, is a UAH alumna who graduated with a degree from the College of Business. Taylor was a beneficiary of scholarship support, which made a difference in her ability to attend and graduate from college. “During my time at UAH, I was placed into an environment that provided growth and development,” Taylor shares. “I learned more about myself at UAH than anywhere else.” Taylor goes on to say, “As a scholarship recipient, I know firsthand how that support can impact someone’s life. Scholarships change a person’s path in life for the better and help guide and motivate them to reach their goals.”

Knowing the value of that support, Ron’s family chose to make a similar difference in the lives of UAH students through a scholarship. Ron’s generous spirit, Esther and Jeff say, also inspired their family to give back. Jeff adds that Ron made a positive difference for so many people, something that was highlighted when people spoke about Ron during his funeral.

“He touched people’s lives in many different ways,” Jeff says. “And what he gave to people... you just can’t measure it.”



Hill Rowan

Dr. Helen Lien

Elizabeth Gibisch