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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AeroAstro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2008–2009 issue of AeroAstro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Introduction to the 2008-2009 annual issue

Perspective is everything

By Ian A. Waitz

Forty years ago, three men were strapped inside the top of a 363-foot tall rocket at the Kennedy Space apollo 11 launchCenter in Florida; they waited, and the world watched. The rocket lifted off successfully and sent them more than 244,000 miles through space until they entered lunar orbit. Two of the men then climbed into the Lunar Module, detached it from the Command Module, and descended to the surface of the moon.

The Eagle had landed. One small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind. Our perspectives of the moon, the earth, the universe, and what we are capable of achieving, changed forever. The lunar landing was a collaboration of visionaries, politicians, engineers, scientists, managers, and many others. It inspired a generation.

The high point of the Apollo 11 mission is straightforward: 40 years ago, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. More challenging is telling the story of how they got there, what the world learned by watching them, and what the adventure means today.

Last year when we began planning our recognition of the moon landing anniversary, we decided from the onset that it would be far more than a social event and a historical retrospective. We would use the opportunity to reflect on the legacy of human space exploration, and discuss how lessons learned can be applied to the future of space exploration and air transportation. This special issue of our annual publication, AeroAstro, focuses on the highlights of our commemorative activities.

Our events began in April when we invited women doctoral candidates from leading academic programs around the United States to the first of what will become an annual event; the Women in Aerospace Symposium. The symposium was also the venue for our annual Lester D. Gardner Lecture where our speaker was Yvonne Brill, a veteran of 60 years in aerospace engineering. They continued with outreach programs to local schools, and sponsorship of the Sally Ride Science Festival as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

On June 10, 11, and 12, 2009, MIT AeroAstro held a truly once-in-a-lifetime event, which we named “Giant Leaps.” Among Giant Leaps’ features were a symposium with many of the engineers, astronauts, and managers who were part of Apollo; a memorial to Apollo program principal architect and former MIT School of Engineering Dean Robert C. Seamans, Jr.; an MIT Museum exhibit of Apollo artifacts; a travelling display encouraging young people to consider aerospace careers; sponsorship; and a Boston Pops concert with AeroAstro alumnus Buzz Aldrin (Sc.D. ’63) narrating selections from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.”

In this issue, you’ll read the perspectives of legendary Apollo program members, current aerospace leaders, and of our future aerospace leaders. We considered challenges and opportunities on Earth as they relate to air transportation, the environment, and earth sensing, and challenges and opportunities in space exploration. And, perhaps most importantly, we examined the role that engineering, science, and technology in inspiring generations of technical and non-technical leaders.

MIT, Draper Lab, and Apollo

An important milestone from August 9, 1961 is a telegram announcing the award of the first Apollo contract to the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. The lab was directed by then Aeronautics and Astronautics Department head, Charles Stark “Doc” Draper. The $4 million contract in 1961 (equivalent to $25 — $35 million in today’s dollars) represented a significant vote of confidence in the skills and leadership of the students, faculty, and staff of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to rise to one of the greatest technical challenges in history.

The famous 1961 telegram announcing award of the first Apollo contract, to the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory.

apollo telegram

The MIT Instrumentation Laboratory developed Apollo’s guidance, navigation, control, and computer systems. At the same time, former MIT Aero-Astro student, professor, and Dean of Engineering, Robert C. Seamans Jr. was NASA associate administrator and a key Apollo Program manager. The MIT Instrumentation Laboratory was renamed the Draper Laboratory in 1970, and became an independent not-for-profit research and development corporation in 1973. It has continued to be a pioneer in the application of science and technology in the national interest. Thus, it is particularly fitting that the Draper Laboratory is the lead sponsor for Giant Leaps.

In addition to these and many other engineering and management contributions to the Apollo Program by MIT faculty, students, staff, and alumni, five of the Apollo astronauts were trained in the Aero-Astro department, including four of the 12 who walked on the surface of the moon: Buzz Aldrin, ScD ’63; Charles Duke, SM ’64; Ed Mitchell, ScD ’64; Rusty Schweickart SB ’56 and SM ’63; and Dave Scott, ENG ’62.

MIT continues in this tradition, with 35 astronauts to date holding MIT degrees —more than any other institution with the exception of the military academies. In October 2008, four MIT astronauts were in space at the same time aboard the International Space Station: Michael Fincke SB ‘89 in Aero-Astro and EAPS; Gregory Chamitoff PhD ‘92 in Aero-Astro, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper SB ‘84 and SM ’85 in Mechanical Engineering, and Stephen Bowen ENG ‘93 in Ocean Engineering.

MIT and the future of aerospace

AeroAstro continues as one of the world’s leading centers of research and education in aerospace. With 220 graduate students, 190 undergraduate students, 35 faculty members, and top-ranked graduate and undergraduate educational programs, our community includes a former space shuttle astronaut, a former fighter pilot, former leaders in industry, a former secretary of the Air Force, two former NASA associate administrators, three former Air Force chief scientists, 14 members of the National Academy of Engineering, and 15 fellows of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

And, while we have many distinguished members, we are a young department with a strong sense of community. We value collaboration—within the department, across MIT, and with colleagues around the world. Our environment is connected, busy, global, hectic, open, collegial, and fun. Recently we identified eight areas that represent grand challenges and grand opportunities for the department and for aerospace:

  • space exploration
  • autonomous, real-time, humans-in-the-loop systems
  • aviation environment and energy
  • aerospace communications and networks
  • aerospace computation, design and simulation air transportation
  • fielding of large-scale complex systems
  • advancing engineering education

Through making advances in these and related areas, MIT Aero-Astro will shape the future of air and space transportation, exploration, communication, and national security. You can learn more about our activities in these areas in the Lab Reports section of this issue.

I hope you enjoy reading this issue about both the history of Apollo and the future of aerospace. And I welcome you to contact me by email or visit us in 02139 to learn more about the department.

Waitz signature
Ian Waitz
Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor and Head
Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts  Avenue, 33 - 207, Cambridge, MA 02139

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