AeroAstro turns 100

On Friday, 11 astronauts — all MIT alumni — took to the stage of Kresge Auditorium to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The elite corps of explorers reminisced about their unique on-the-job experiences, from day-to-day tasks on the International Space Station to high-pressure exercises, such as the emergency dismantling of a handrail on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Moderator Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems who was nominated last week by President Barack Obama to serve as NASA’s deputy administrator, took a moment to direct a question to the packed auditorium: “Who wants [the astronauts’] job?”

In response, it seemed nearly everyone raised a hand.

Indeed, a recurring theme during AeroAstro’s three-day centennial celebration was the sending of more humans into space — and in particular, the prospect of establishing a human settlement on Mars.

“One hundred years from now, students will be studying the Lewis and Clark-like expedition to Mars,” predicted astronaut Christopher Cassidy SM ’00. 

Just as with that 19th-century trek, a journey to the Red Planet would require enormous resources, ingenuity, and a good amount of risk — a point that was raised by another generation of risk-takers: nine Apollo-era astronauts, including Apollo 11 crewmates Buzz Aldrin ScD ’63 and Michael Collins, who reunited at MIT to celebrate AeroAstro’s centennial.

Questions of whether and how humans might establish a Martian colony prompted a spirited discussion among the Apollo astronauts, who debated the merits of carrying out such a monumental mission either through NASA or private companies like SpaceX.  

“In the risk-averse society we’ve become, we need to find a way to take a risk … to cross that boundary and go to the next frontier,” Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham said.

Russell “Rusty” Schweickart ’56, SM ’63, the lunar module pilot for Apollo 9, said the places where risks are now taken — and innovations are made — are in private enterprise.

“When you go today to any gathering of people involved in private space initiatives, the juices are flowing,” Schweickart said. “I mean, it’s a rock concert, man … things are really bubbling.”

On an “upward-sloping sine wave”

One of the rock stars in the commercial space arena was on hand to offer some thoughts on the subject: Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, was a featured speaker at the event. In a one-on-one conversation with department head Jaime Peraire, the H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Musk talked about his vision for advancing rocket technology to launch future colonists to Mars.

Toward that goal, he revealed plans to land the company’s Falcon 9 rocket booster on a small, floating platform as soon as December. If the rocket lands safely, it could be a big step toward the development of reusable rockets, which Musk estimates could save 90 percent in launch costs.

“Our pace of innovation is much faster than the big aerospace companies,” Musk said. “That has to be true from a Darwinian perspective, because small companies would die otherwise.”

On the topic of human evolution, Musk advocated for a multiplanetary species, seeing the establishment of a colony on Mars as “insurance” against human extinction on Earth. As aerospace technology continues to improve on an “upward-sloping sine wave,” Musk hopes to jump at the chance to expand to Mars.

“This is the first time this window [to Mars] has been open in the history of Earth,” Musk said. “I hope it will always be open, but it may close.”

A fluid transition

The seizing of technological opportunities has been a hallmark of AeroAstro since 1914, when it established the country’s first course in aeronautical engineering.

Since then, the department has had a hand in shaping aerospace milestones, from building the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel in 1938 — a facility used to test World War II aircraft — to developing the Apollo spacecraft’s guidance, control, and computer systems.

AeroAstro alumni have gone on to lead important aerospace achievements, from the development of the B-2 stealth bomber to the design of the Mars Pathfinder’s laser altimeter.

“AeroAstro at MIT has had a more extraordinary influence on our technology than almost any other institution,” said Tom Crouch, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “MIT has made a fluid transition from air to space, and keeps on going.”

Changing the world

Looking to the future of aerospace, experts at MIT and elsewhere considered the state of aviation, autonomous systems, small satellites, and aeronautical education.

As in space exploration, the aviation industry may benefit from taking a few risks to enable innovations in fuel efficiency, said John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems.

“We’re sort of a victim of our own success,” Hansman said. “When the system works so well, it’s hard to move off of the design point.”

In the arena of autonomous systems, panelists explored the possibility of airspace and roadways populated with robots.

“There’s a trust element to all these autonomous systems,” said Jonathan How, the Richard Cockburn Maclaurin Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “At what point are you willing to hop in the back seat and let the system drive? How do we convey enough information to the human so they feel comfortable with the system?”

How and his students are working to improve navigation and control of autonomous air and ground vehicles in uncertain environments.

In a conversation revolving around the development of small satellites, David Miller, the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and chief technologist at NASA, pointed to shoebox-sized satellites as express tracks to space.

“It’s access to space on a modest budget,” Miller said. “And they’ve encapsulated risk … if you scramble the yolk inside, you won’t mess up the rest of the vehicle.”

Kerri Cahoy, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, is designing a constellation of small satellites that will work together to point small mirrors in a configuration to mimic a large space telescope’s mirror. The hope is to deploy such an array in space to detect faraway objects, such as exoplanets.

“It comes down to one of the things MIT is really awesome at, which is using algorithms, clever architecture designs, to get these distributed satellite systems controlled and looking where we want, and discussing amongst themselves,” Cahoy said.

In a panel exploring the future of aeronautical education, Karen Willcox, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, noted the lofty aspirations and weighty course load of the average MIT student.

“Students are not here just to learn the nitty-gritty of aeronautics, but they also want to change the world,” Willcox said. “How do we help them pack all this into an already-overflowing four-year degree?”

One way, Willcox said, is through the department’s flexible curriculum, 16-ENG, in which students combine a pared-down core of AeroAstro classes with another concentration in, for example, planetary science, or autonomous systems.

Hats off

While there’s been much emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins urged the adoption of STEEM, or STEAM — variants of STEM that include English and the arts.

To make his case, Collins invoked Milton’s epic poem, “Paradise Lost.” From a STEM perspective, “It’s about a guy who falls off a cliff,” Collins said. To demonstrate a perspective that takes the humanities into account, Collins recited an excerpt from the poem, prompting a burst of applause.

On Friday, Collins’ modern counterparts — current and recent astronauts — took the stage to talk about life in zero gravity, and historic missions to deliver the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

Franklin Chang-Diaz ScD ’77 recalled receiving that first call from NASA — “I thought it was a joke” — welcoming him into the astronaut corps.

Cassidy remembered his first time stepping out into space — an event that was preceded by an errant drinking straw that escaped the airlock and “disappeared down in the clouds,” Cassidy said. “I remember gripping down and thinking, I don’t want to be that straw.”

Mike Massimino SM ’88, PhD ’92 recounted his most harrowing moment, trying to remove a handrail on the Hubble Space Telescope. The handrail was an obstacle to an instrument that needed repair, but the required tools wouldn’t budge it. Instead, Massimino was instructed to rip the handrail off with brute force — an experience he still describes as “a nightmare.”

As the panel opened the session to questions from the audience, Collins approached the microphone, not with a question, but a comment.

“I’d just like to take my hat off to you guys,” Collins said. “Thank you for doing what you do so beautifully well.”

To make sure the audience didn’t forget its history, Massimino quipped, “You know who that was, right?” 

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

Can the U.S. and Russia make more progress on nuclear security?

Political tensions between the U.S. and Russia have increased in the last year, raising concerns about how effectively the two states will be able to pursue nuclear arms-reduction goals.

Striking a note of cautious optimism in an MIT talk yesterday, Rose Gottenmoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, praised Russia’s “businesslike” enforcement of the U.S.-Russia New START Treaty, but cited a need for continued progress in other areas of nuclear security.

“The United States and Russia are continuing to implement the treaty in a businesslike manner, despite all the tensions,” Gottenmoeller said, referring to the military conflict in the Ukraine. The U.S. accuses Russia of occupying Ukrainian territory in Crimea; Russia claims the area is historically its own.

The U.S. and Russia inspect each other’s facilities 18 times a year as part of the New START Treaty, which was signed in 2010, went into effect in 2011, and calls for a reduction to 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed on certain delivery systems by the year 2018.

Gottenmoeller said that “the Russians have been good partners” on issues such as removing chemical weapons from Syria, and reiterated American willingness to reduce nuclear arsenals by a further one-third, an offer President Barack Obama made publicly at a speech in Berlin in 2013.

“The greatest prize at the current time is if we can get the Russians to [pursue] the Berlin” proposal, Gottenmoeller said.

Still, as Gottenmoeller made clear in her remarks, areas of arms-control friction remain between the two states right now. She noted a central one early in her talk: The U.S. contends that Russia has been in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 U.S.-Soviet Union pact that bans ground-launched nuclear and conventional weapons with a range of up to 5,500 kilometers.

“We have been attempting to press this very serious matter with the Russian Federation,” Gottenmoeller said, emphasizing that the U.S. is “fully committed to the continued viability of the INF treaty, and we are in full compliance with it.”

The road ahead

Gottenmoeller’s public talk — “Future Prospects for U.S.-Russia Arms Control” — was delivered Thursday afternoon in MIT’s Building 54, in front of an audience that included students, faculty, diplomats, and peace activists. 

She emphasized that public awareness of both the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons and of recent progress in arms control needs to be enhanced.

“At the end of the Cold War, the looming threat of nuclear war seemed to drift away,” Gottenmoeller said. Public support for nuclear security has a practical dimension to it, since the U.S. Senate must ratify arms treaties — and public opinion has the ability to sway senators.

The U.S. has also significantly reduced a stockpile of what was once 31,000 nuclear weapons, Gottenmoeller noted; in another area of progress, the U.S. and Russia have collaborated on a program that has repurposed Russian nuclear materials — the equivalent of thousands of bombs — into nuclear-energy fuel in the U.S.

As for the next steps for nuclear security, Gottenmoeller suggested that further bilateral arms reductions between the U.S. and Russia should take precedence over multilateral arms-reduction talks among several of the world’s nuclear powers, including Britain, France, and China.

“To my mind, this [multilateral approach] doesn’t make sense, because the U.S. and Russia control 90 percent of nuclear weapons,” Gottenmoeller said.

The U.S. and Russia will also need to work together next spring to perform the mandated five-year review of 1970’s Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Weapons (NPT), the world’s largest and longest-lasting global nuclear-weapons agreement.

Gottenmoeller said it could be “a difficult review conference” for multiple reasons, including U.S. concerns over the spread of nuclear materials in the Middle East. However, she stated, “I want the NPT regime to be increasingly and constantly strengthened.”

Moreover, Gottenmoeller emphasized, “It is in the U.S. interest, and in the interest of countries around the world, that the 70-year history of nonuse of nuclear weapons be continued.” She concluded her talk by quoting former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, in what could be a mantra for arms negotiators: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Image of the Day: Blue-footed Boobies

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This image of Blue-footed Boobies is part of NSF-funded research on what may ultimately cause the species’ extinction. A survey of Blue-footed Boobies throughout the taxon’s range in Galápagos, Ecuador, found approximately 6400 adults, compared to a rough estimate of 20,000 in the 1960s. Few pairs bred in 2011-2013, and almost no birds in juvenile plumage were seen. Long-term data suggest that poor breeding began in 1998. The poor reproduction seems to be linked to diet. Previous work indicated that sardine and herring supported successful breeding, but these fish were mostly absent from the birds’ diet during the study.

Image credit: David Anchundia, Wake Forest University

Image of the Day: The small blue yonder

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These are yttrium oxide crystals, activated using a special technique called atomic layer deposition to make them luminescent. Each crystal is smaller than the diameter of a single strand of spider silk. Yttrium oxide is used as a starter material to make everything from the red color in color TV picture tubes, to lasers and microwave filters.

Image credit: Angel Yanguas-Gil, Jeffrey W. Elam, and John N. Hryn

Historian David Mindell named 2015 AAIA Associate Fellow

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) has selected MIT historian and engineer David A. Mindell as a 2015 AIAA Associate Fellow. 

“It is great honor to be selected,” said Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the Program of Science, Technology and Society (STS), and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “As aerospace engineering grapples with the critical importance of human beings in robotic and unmanned systems, it is heartening to see that the profession values humanistic perspectives.”

The AIAA selects individuals who have accomplished important engineering or scientific research; created original works of outstanding merit; or have made notable contributions to the arts, sciences, or technology of aeronautics or astronautics.

“David’s research has spanned all three areas — arts, sciences, and technology — showing how they are inseparable in the history of flight and space exploration,” said Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Head of STS. “His election as an AIAA fellow brings honor to STS, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and to MIT, fittingly on the eve of the Institute’s centennial celebration of the nation’s most distinguished aerospace program.”

Mindell will receive the award on Jan. 5, 2015, at a ceremony held in conjunction with the AIAA Science and Technology Forum and Exposition in Kissimmee, Florida.


By Kierstin Wesolowski | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Image of the Day: Ice waves

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Along the southeastern coast of Greenland, an intricate network of fjords funnels glacial ice to the Atlantic Ocean. During the summer melting season, newly calved icebergs join slabs of sea ice and older, weathered bergs in an offshore slurry that the southward-flowing East Greenland Current sometimes swirls into stunning shapes.

Image credit: Landsat 7/USGS

Dava Newman nominated for NASA post

The White House has announced the nomination of MIT’s Dava Newman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems, as NASA’s deputy administrator, the space agency’s No. 2 leadership position. Newman’s appointment will require approval by the U.S. Senate.

Newman, who has been on the MIT faculty since 1993, is director of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program and MIT Portugal Program, a faculty member in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and a Margaret McVicar Faculty Fellow.

Newman earned her BS from the University of Notre Dame in 1986, followed by three graduate degrees from MIT: two SM degrees, in aeronautics and astronautics and in technology and policy, in 1989, and a PhD in aerospace biomedical engineering, in 1992. She is the author of “Interactive Aerospace Engineering and Design” (McGraw-Hill, 2002), an introductory engineering textbook, and more than 200 papers presented in journals and at refereed conferences.

Newman’s research has included the development of a radical new spacesuit design that is tighter-fitting and would afford much greater mobility and lighter weight than today’s bulky pressure suits. She has focused on quantifying astronaut performance in space, including computer modeling of the dynamics of human motion in microgravity conditions. Newman has also developed exercise countermeasures, serving as principal investigator for three spaceflight experiments, and specializes in understanding partial-gravity locomotion for future planetary exploration. Her development of patented, wearable compression suits has also led her into research on assistive technologies for people with locomotion impairment.

“It’s very exciting, and an enormous honor,” Newman says of her nomination as NASA’s deputy administrator. “Aerospace engineering, of course, is my passion. Maybe I’ve been training for this my whole life!”

Newman says that NASA has “a clear vision” aligned with goals set by the Obama administration, with Mars as the destination in its long-term strategic plan. While the space program may draw most of the agency’s public attention, NASA’s research in aeronautics is no less significant, she says, and has produced “significant aviation advancements.”

The deputy administrator’s specific duties, Newman says, include NASA’s legislative and intergovernmental affairs; communications; the Mission Support Directorate; and international relationships, including the multinational partnership that manages the International Space Station. In addition, the post oversees educational programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

Helping to spur the interest of young people in space, and in engineering in general, will be “a privilege,” Newman says. “I’d like to change the conversation with kids about what it means to be an engineer” — which she calls “the best job in the world, where you get to solve really challenging and extraordinary problems in the service of humankind.”

Newman and her partner Guillermo Trotti, an architect and designer, completed a round-the-world sailing voyage on their boat in 2003. The two are now live-in housemasters at MIT’s Baker House, an undergraduate residence hall.

Newman says she is eager for the challenges of her new job: “I love NASA’s portfolio, and what it’s tasked to do for the nation: pushing the boundaries and leading in aeronautics and space — aircraft, space, planetary and earth sciences, exploration, technology development, and education. I look forward to doing the best work I can, to applying myself 100 percent, to learning a lot, and to advancing our national aerospace goals.”

By David L. Chandler | MIT News Office

Image of the Day: Sagittarius Galaxy impacts Milky Way’s disk

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This is a computer simulation showing the impact of the Sagittarius Galaxy on the disk of the Milky Way. This impact had a major influence on the development of the Milky Way’s spiral arms. Also shown is the Sagittarius Stream, a long stream of stars and dark matter stripped from the Sagittarius Galaxy by the gravitational pull of the Milky Way.

Image credit: Erik Tollerud, Chris Purcell and James Bullock, University of California, Irvine

3 Questions: The launch of the MIT Climate Change Conversation

On Sept. 19, Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, announced the membership of a community committee to plan and implement the MIT Climate Change Conversation. As Zuber noted, “The Committee should seek broad input from the Institute community on how the US and the world can most effectively address global climate change. The Conversation should explore pathways to effective climate change mitigation, including how the MIT community — through education, research and campus engagement — can constructively move the global and national agendas forward.”

Roman Stocker, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation, spoke with MIT News about the committee’s charge, its progress to date, and its next steps.

Q. What does the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation aim to achieve?

A. We aim to explore and assess the broad range of actions that MIT could take to make a significant positive contribution to address climate change. The global nature of this problem and the amount of debate and polarization that surround it are daunting, but the premise of the committee is that the complexity of the problem is uniquely suited for MIT, given our strong problem-solving ethos, and that a leading technical institution can have unique roles to play in responding to the climate crisis. Identifying and evaluating these potential roles is the purpose of the Conversation.

Importantly, the committee will only be the catalyst of the Conversation: Its main actor will be the MIT community! In other words, what we really aim to achieve is the engagement of the widest possible fraction of the MIT community in developing and debating bold ideas — MIT-style! — to help identify the pros and cons of different options. We believe that this approach will allow us, as a community, to identify a broad spectrum of action items; estimate the effectiveness of each action in addressing the problem; and thereby determine how our Institute can most effectively drive forward the national and global agendas on climate change.

We will consider actions at all levels: from new educational initiatives at MIT and via its edX megaphone, to new opportunities for research that capitalize and expand on MIT’s presence in the field, to improvements to campus infrastructure and operations aimed at reducing MIT’s own carbon footprint, to leveraging MIT’s visibility to drive more effective policy.

These are but examples, as we do not want to constrain the creativity of the MIT community. We will welcome any and all ideas through the multiple opportunities for input and feedback that we will construct. We look forward to this Conversation as a catalyst for original ideas, debate, and sound analysis.      

Q. What has the committee done to date, since its membership was announced on Sept. 19?

A. Devising the right ingredients to make this MIT Conversation successful is what has kept us busy during this first month, and still is. Part of this effort consists of educating ourselves, within the committee, about the landscape of activities that already exist at MIT in the area of climate change, as some of these activities could represent important nucleation sites for bold ideas for action. At the same time, this knowledge will allow us to engage the MIT community in a more informed and meaningful way, through the Conversation activities we have begun to plan for the fall and spring.

Personally, this first month has also allowed me to appreciate the expertise we have on the committee, which I feel will be an invaluable asset in catalyzing this Conversation. The committee is composed of one faculty member per school, as well as representatives from the undergraduate and graduate student bodies, from the postdocs, and from the staff. Collectively, this group encompasses a wide range of expertise, covering both the science and the economics of climate change, as well as the on-campus infrastructural and operational aspects of a university planning for climate change.

The committee is unanimous in its feeling not only of the urgency of the problem — expressed with particular emphasis by the younger generations — but also of the unique opportunity that this Conversation represents for MIT to take on a visible leadership role in the solution of the problem.

Q. How can a member of MIT get engaged in this Conversation?

A. We will create multiple opportunities for engagement throughout the current academic year. In the next few weeks, we will launch both an Idea Bank and a survey. The Idea Bank intends to capture the expertise and creativity of the MIT community and to engage it in a campus-wide brainstorm about what actions MIT could take to address climate change. We will welcome input on the full spectrum of possible actions that MIT could take. We will particularly welcome bold, creative ideas, because we feel that the spectrum of options for action available to a leading technical institution has not been fully explored to date.

The survey is being designed to provide input for the committee in structuring the Conversation. With the survey, we aim to reach a wider fraction of the MIT community — hopefully, all of you! — and to understand how we can best support the community in this important Conversation.

We will carefully review the input we receive through both the Idea Bank and the survey, distill it into broad categories for potential action, and use it to inform the centerpiece of the Conversation, a series of high-profile forums to be held in the spring term. These forums will focus on the different action categories that MIT can consider investing in to further its role in addressing climate change, including education, research, financial actions, policy, campus operations — with specifics that will be refined based on community input.

The months ahead will represent a vibrant time to discuss climate-change actions at MIT. We invite everyone in the community to be part of this Conversation! 

By News Office

Image of the Day: Daya Bay antineutrino detector

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In this image, photomultiplier tubes line the walls of the Daya Bay neutrino detector. The tubes are designed to amplify and record the faint flashes of light that signify an antineutrino interaction. This experiment aims to measure the final unknown mixing angle that describes how neutrinos oscillate.

Image credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

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