This history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics is condensed and adapted from the paper “A Century of Aerospace Education at MIT” by Lauren Clark and Eric Feron, with additional material by William T.G. Litant.
Aeronautical study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began six years prior to the Wright brothers’ 1903 pioneering flight. In 1896, mechanical engineering student Albert J. Wells built a 30-square-inch wind tunnel as part of his thesis.
In 1909, the year that marked the founding of MIT’s Tech Aero Club, U.S. Naval Academy graduate Jerome C. Hunsaker enrolled in MIT’s graduate program in naval construction. Hunsaker developed a fascination with the aeronautical literature in MIT’s library and became an aviation enthusiast. He spent the summer and fall of 1913 surveying aeronautical laboratories in Europe. In 1914, MIT offered the nation’s first course in aeronautical engineering. To support the course, Hunsaker, and his assistant Donald Douglas (SB ’14), built a wind tunnel on Vassar St., the first structure on MIT’s new Cambridge campus. The first person to complete the course, earning the first American master of science degree in aeronautical engineering, was Hou-Kun Chow.
MIT’s undergraduate program in aeronautical engineering, Course 16, began in 1926, under the auspices of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
The Daniel Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, MIT Building 33, opened in 1928. The building was renovated in 2001 to include the landmark AeroAstro Learning Laboratory Department headquarters.
In 1933, Hunsaker became the Mechanical Engineering head. He updated the undergraduate aeronautical curriculum, emphasizing fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and electrical engineering, and making room for more electives. Otto C. Koppen’s graduate class in airplane design reflected contemporary thinking that saw the airplane as part of a larger technological system.
Hunsaker led MIT’s effort to acquire a state-of-the-art wind tunnel. Dedicated in 1938, the Wright Brothers Memorial Wind tunnel was the first of MIT’s large-scale facilities for advanced aerodynamic research, and became a national center for aeronautics research and testing during World War II. Today, AeroAstro maintains three wind tunnels: the large Wright Brothers tunnel, used for student instruction, vehicular, architectural, and sports equipment research; a smaller low-speed tunnel; and a tunnel capable of generating supersonic wind speeds.
In 1939, Aeronautics became a distinct department. Hunsaker remarked, “The total effect of our graduates on the airplane industry cannot be estimated. But it is of interest to note that MIT graduates include the chief engineers or engineering directors of Curtiss Wright, Glenn L. Martin, Pratt & Whitney, Vought, Hamilton Standard, Lockheed, Stearman, and Douglas, as well as the engineer officers of the Naval Aircraft Factory and of Wright Field.” The early try-and-fly days of aviation were over. The era of the engineered aircraft had fully emerged.
Charles Stark Draper joined the aeronautics staff as a research assistant in 1929. In the 1930s, he established a course of study in instrumentation and founded the Instrumentation Laboratory, which would become the world’s foremost academic center for inertial guidance research and development.
During World War II, the Aeronautics Department expanded rapidly to meet the needs of the military. As in World War I, MIT gave special training to Army and Navy officers. Approximately 600 officers received aviation engineering training with a specialization in structures or engines. The size and importance of the Instrumentation Lab increased dramatically. War-related research was also conducted in the Aeronautics Department’s other laboratories. The Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel operated 24 hours a day, testing aircraft designs for Martin, Grumman, Lockheed, and other manufacturers.
MIT emerged from the war as the nation’s largest nonindustrial defense contractor; almost all major research in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics was performed for the military. The Gas Turbine Lab advanced the new technology of the gas turbine engine and quickly grew into a top academic and research center. The Aeroelastic and Structures Laboratory led the design of aircraft structures for high-speed flight, virtually creating the modern specialty of aeroelasticity. The Naval Supersonic Laboratory achieved supersonic flow at Mach 2.0 and, through Project Meteor, helped develop a supersonic air-to-air missile.
Meanwhile, the Instrumentation Laboratory began its pioneering research on inertial guidance. In 1953, Draper, who had succeeded Hunsaker as department head, flew from Massachusetts to Los Angeles using his SPace Inertial Reference Equipment. This was the first long-distance inertially navigated aircraft flight. The Instrumentation Lab later designed the Polaris missile’s inertial guidance system.
From just after World War II until 1959, the aeronautical engineering program grew and branched into specializations. Draper and his colleagues on the faculty worked to compress the myriad areas of the field into a manageable, four-year course. In the process, they helped define the modern aerospace curriculum.
In 1914, MIT offered the nation’s first course in aeronautical engineering. To support the course, Hunsaker, and his assistant Donald Douglas (SB ’14), built a wind tunnel on Vassar St., the first structure on MIT’s new Cambridge campus.
In 1932, Isabel Ebel, one of only two women studying aero engineering among MIT’s student body of 30 women and 3,000 men, became the first woman to receive a degree in aeronautical engineering. She was unable to find a full-time job as an aero engineer until 1939 when friend Amelia Earhart convinces Grumman to hire her.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, and the space race was on. Two years later, the department became the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The cold war, the space race, and massive government investment in missile technology led the Department to expand instruction and research in astronautics, instrumentation, and guidance. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a landmark speech committing the country to landing astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade. The speech was based on a plan prepared by NASA Deputy Administrator Robert C. Seamans Jr. Seamans, who earned his ScD in Instrumentation under Draper in 1951, continued with the department until his death in 2008.
The Department is particularly distinguished by its tremendous contributions to the Apollo program. The voyage to the moon and landing were made possible by guidance, navigation, and control systems developed by the Instrumentation Lab. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (PhD ’63) was the second man to set foot on the moon and one of four Course 16 graduates to walk on the moon. MIT has produced more astronauts than any other school.
In the early 1970s, the AeroAstro Department developed the Unified Engineering curriculum. The challenging two-semester curriculum, which students take as sophomores, includes statics, solid mechanics, and materials; dynamics; fluid mechanics; thermodynamics and propulsion; and linear systems. It examines connections among the disciplines and emphasizes aerospace engineering as a systems approach. It also emphasizes the idea that leaders in the field consider the interaction of technical solutions with economic, political, social, and environmental needs, and societal constraints.
Numerous aerospace accomplishments throughout the 1970s and ’80s involved MIT alumni. A. Thomas Young (ScD ’72) was director of NASA’s Viking I and II missions to Mars in 1976. The space shuttle program was led by James A. Abrahamson (SB ’55) from 1981 to 1984. Beginning in 1983, Man Vehicle Laboratory experiments began accompanying Shuttle missions. Following the Challenger accident in 1986, then Department Head Eugene E. Covert (today, a Department professor emeritus) served on the accident investigations commission.
In 1988, a team of 40 MIT students and alumni set a world record for human-powered flight. Their craft, Daedalus, flew 74 miles from Crete to Santorini in a recreation of the mythological flight of the craft’s namesake. In 1989, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched the Magellan spacecraft to conduct a radar mapping of Venus. Building on MIT’s extensive role in developing radar, an Institute team headed by Gordon H. Pettengill designed the radar instrument that mapped more than 98 percent of Venus’s surface.
AeroAstro alumni have taken part in more than one-third of U.S. space flights and have collectively logged more than 10,000 hours in space. Five MIT faculty have served as chief scientist for the Air Force. More than 25 percent of professors in the nation’s leading aerospace programs are MIT alumni. The aerospace program heads at a number of other world-class U.S. institutions are AeroAstro alumni.
In the 21st century, AeroAstro faculty continue with ground-breaking research. For example, the Gas Turbine Lab is developing a “silent” jet aircraft that would produce no more noise than a tractor-trailer truck. The Space Systems Lab has created a unique multiple micro-satellite system scheduled to be tested aboard the International Space Station and is pioneering the development of a magnetic propulsion/positioning system. Another AeroAstro group, together with NASA, is developing the spacecraft and support systems for future manned space missions. And, faculty experts in communications and software are researching a myriad of projects: from increasing robustness of aerospace software to increasing autonomy of unmanned aerial vehicles.
The 21st Century marked the beginning of a new focus for AeroAstro. Industry and engineering education accrediting organizations had become concerned that engineering education was emphasizing engineering science at the expense of engineering practice. The Department embarked on an overhaul of its curriculum. After two years of exhaustive development, AeroAstro implemented an educational initiative, called CDIO (for Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate), that will have a fundamental, long-lasting institutional impact at MIT, and more broadly, in university engineering education. Students continue to receive a thorough education in engineering fundamentals, but these are now interwoven with considerable hands-on projects, and exposure to a wide-range of topics and skills vital to 21st century engineering such as teamwork, ethics, and communications. The CDIO protocol pioneered in AeroAstro, has been adopted by more than 100 universities throughout the world, which, along with MIT, formed the CDIO Initiative.