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 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 the military. As in World War I, MIT gave special training to Army and Navy officers. Approximately 600 officers received aviation engineering training with 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 managable, four-year course. In the process, they helped define the modern aerospace curriculum.