Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) from 1976 to 1982, Bruce Murray was a geologist whose vision was never earthbound. He earned his PhD from MIT and served two years in the U.S. Air Force before joining the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1960. Caltech manages JPL for NASA, and soon Murray was working on JPL’s Mariner missions to Mars. During his tenure as director of JPL, the Viking spacecraft landed on Mars and the Voyagers began exploring the outer solar system. He also oversaw Earth orbital missions, including Seasat, the Solar Mesosphere Explorer, and Shuttle Imaging Radar-A.
With the depredations of Nazi Germany dominating the international memory of the middle decades of the twentieth century, many German social, cultural, and technical contributions not associated with the tainted influence of the Third Reich have been forgotten or overlooked. One of the individuals who contributed significantly to the prospects of regular transatlantic air service before open warfare ended such endeavors was Wolfgang von Gronau.
On August 15, 1935, in a plane crash near Point Barrow Alaska, famed aviator Wiley Post perished alongside his close friend, the renowned humorist and popular culture icon Will Rogers. With the exception of Charles Lindbergh, no American aviator of the time was as celebrated as Post, while Rogers was widely considered as the nation’s most gifted commentator on American society. Their loss impacted the two brightest spots in American culture during the Depression – aviation and film – and was especially devastating because of it.
My first word was JET, since we lived near an Air Force base and experienced sonic booms on a regular basis. My fascination with the heavens took off from there. Growing up, my family went camping and backpacking a lot, and one of my clearest memories of that time is looking up at a dark, dark sky and pointing out satellites to each other, those little moving points of light that are sometimes so faint I could only see them in my peripheral vision.
On January 15, 1967, the NFL champion Green Bay Packers played the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs in what would later be known as Super Bowl I. Sixty years earlier, American football looked much different. Helmets resembled aviator caps. Forward passes had been legal for less than a year.
No question 2012 will be remembered as a simultaneously joyous and tumultuous year, certainly in politics but also in air and space. As a retrospective of the year just gone, here are my five most significant events in air and space. Like all such lists, it is idiosyncratic and I recognize that others might choose different events. I list them in order of their occurrence—not according to their significance—during the year, along with my reason for including them on this list.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Wernher von Braun (March 23, 1912-June 16, 1977), one of the most famous rocketeers and advocates of spaceflight that ever lived. Accordingly, it is an appropriate time to reflect on his remarkable life and career. A longstanding “space cadet,” von Braun was an early member of the “Verein fur Raumschiffahrt” (Society for Spaceship Travel, or VfR). Although spaceflight aficionados and technicians had organized at other times and in other places, the VfR emerged soon after its founding on July 5, 1927 as a leading group that both advocated for spaceflight and worked to build rockets. Growing up in the VfR, Wernher von Braun became the quintessential and movingly eloquent advocate for the dream of spaceflight and a leading architect of its technical development.
During the recently completed centennial of naval aviation (2011), there were many and varied tributes to the factual history of naval aviation. Nevertheless, we cannot forget that public perception of the armed forces is also a strong historical consideration.
When I was working on a collection of the aeronautical papers of Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, I was struck by the wealth of detail in his research and the meticulousness of his note-taking. And as a man whose interests ranged from astronomy, astrophysics, aeronautics, and bird flight, mathematics, and the reckoning of standard time, Langley enjoyed observing and describing all sorts of processes — and then suggesting improvements.