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This Week in MIT History

By Katie Jeffreys

Features Editor

When considering advances in technology, it is interesting to consider public opinion at the time of the change. One area of technological growth which shaped a generation was that of space exploration. During this month in 1959, Course XVI added “Astronautics” to the department title, becoming the “Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.” The change was described in “Course XVI Hints at Future in Added Astronautics Title” Published in The Tech on January 9, 1959. The text of the article follows.

MIT’s Department of Aeronautical Engineering has officially become the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, C. Richard Soderberg, Dean of the School of Engineering, announced last Monday. Charles S. Draper ’28, professor of aeronautical engineering, will continue to head the department.

“The change in name,” according to Dr. Draper, “is like the very top of an iceberg; much more lies below and is yet to be seen.” The trend in the department is away from the drawing boards because basic science seems to be the future master of outer space. New buildings will rise to house the expanding department and plans are now well under way.

One of the first big steps by the department will be the sponsoring of a seminar series dealing with man’s problems in outer space. H. Guyford Stever, professor of aeronautical engineering, will direct the seminars, which will attract the nation’s top experts as speakers.

“MIT must educate men who are prepared not only to design and build the craft that we conceive of today, but to engineer new types of flight vehicles which at this time we can only imagine,” Dr. Draper said.

MIT has been a pioneer in aeronautics. As early as 1896 a wind tunnel was built here for the study of wind pressure. It boasted 20-mph capacity. In contrast, the present hypersonic wind tunnel at MIT’s Naval Supersonic Laboratory is capable of airflows at mach 8 (3,100 mph at 2,000 degrees).

Glider experiments were conducted here during the early days of aviation, and in 1913 the Institute’s first formal course in aeronautical engineering was offered. By 1926 these beginnings had developed into a full, four-year program.

The department now offers a range of 50 aeronautical subjects, including a course in orbital vehicles. Sponsored research has kept faculty members in close touch with the latest developments in the field. The department’s Instrumentation Lab, for instance, directs efforts of 900 in the field of inertial guidance and missile systems. Its latest accomplishment is development of the guidance system for the Navy’s Polaris underwater launched missile.

Some of the world’s outstanding aviation personalities have been graduates of the department. Donald W. Douglas ’14, chairman of the board of Douglas Aircraft, and James H. Doolittle, former commander of the eighth Air Force, and now chairman of the Space Technology Laboratories, both received degrees here, and are now members of the MIT Corporation.

“The airplane is here for a long time, and we will continue to regard aeronautics as fundamental. But the sky, or speaking more precisely, the air, is no longer the limit. Interplanetary travel is yet to be accomplished but clearly it will be feasible,” said Dr. Draper.