May 21, 2008
Aeronautics & Astronautics celebrates 50 years in sea, sky and space
Any institution that lasts 50 years would have its share of highs and lows, but those of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford have stretched from searching out long lost wreckage at the bottom of the ocean to investigating the rarefied heights of Einsteinian physics in orbit. Roughly 500 alumni, students, faculty and staff gathered during a recent weekend to swap those and other recollections, as they celebrated their collective half-century of adventure in academic aerospace.
"This is one of the top-ranked AA departments in the country, and has been for a number of years," noted Jim Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering, in his welcoming remarks. "There is so much to be proud of in this department. There is a rich history and a rich set of opportunities for the future."
The three-day event put both AA's future and history on display, coupling graduate student posters explaining current research with a symposium featuring accomplished faculty and alumni. Those speakers ranged from entrepreneurs with scrappy startups to venerated leaders at the top of their fields.
A storied past
From its beginning as a small chip off the Mechanical Engineering Department block, in an era jolted by the launch of Sputnik, AA has earned its own reputation as a source of innovative ideas and people.
The department's impact and influence on aerospace education, technology and industry is reflected in ways beyond its perennially high rankings. More than half of the current active professors, six in total, are members of the National Academy of Engineering, as are eight current emeritus professors.
Stanford's Office of Technology Licensing attributes 77 patents to the department over the last 19 years. In his remarks, alumnus and entrepreneur Andy Barrows offered a list of more than a dozen AA-related startup companies. The ventures and ideas originating in the department cover a wide variety of areas, ranging from a new, safer chemistry for rocket fuel to ingenious applications of and improvements to the Global Positioning System, to nanotechnology for automatically detecting structural damage and even novel medical devices.
A few of the department's biggest endeavors were featured at the symposium. For decades, members of the department have worked side by side with physicists at Stanford to realize the exquisitely precise Gravity Probe B experiment, a satellite-based test of the effects of Einstein's theory of gravity.
Among the many technical accomplishments related to the project are contributions by Professor Emeritus Dan DeBra and alumnus Benjamin Lange to the development of "drag-free" satellites that experience no forces at all but gravity. One of the most famous alumni of the project, and leader of the Saturday panel discussion, is PhD alum and AA Professor Emeritus Bradford Parkinson, whose work at the Air Force led to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Since Parkinson's return to Stanford, where since 1984 he has co-led the Gravity Probe B project with Physics Professor Francis Everitt, he and Professor Per Enge have made crucial improvements to navigation, including systems that drastically reduce GPS drift and error. Those systems have been used to automate airplane landings and guide farm tractors while becoming the savior of thousands of navigationally challenged car renters.
Another adventure came out of the department's longstanding program in robotics, initiated by Professor Emeritus Robert Cannon and now led by Professor Stephen Rock. In 2006, Rock imbued a submersible robot with clever software that allowed it to autonomously comb the seafloor of the coast off Big Sur, finally bringing researchers and the public the first comprehensive survey of the wreckage of the U.S.S. Macon, a Navy blimp that crashed in 1935.
The department has made major contributions to airplane design for decades, owing to a series of experts in computational fluid dynamics, a mathematically intensive field that has allowed for modern advances in aerodynamics. The algorithms of one such expert, Professor Antony Jameson, have been used to design the shape of many of the airliners in the skies today, increasing their flying range. Since the early 1970s other professors including the late Krishnamurthy Karamcheti and current faculty member Sanjiva Lele also have advanced the complicated science of reducing aircraft noise.
Professor Ilan Kroo, an aircraft design expert and founder of one of the department's spinoff companies, told the audience that AA's expertise in areas such as navigation, control, design and materials will all have a role in addressing a looming problem in aerospace: the projected tripling in air traffic over the next 30 years. Sustaining the system both operationally and environmentally, he said, will require substantial gains in control and efficiency.
As in any academic department, many future discoveries will be made by students. At a poster session the day before the symposium, students demonstrated their work on projects such as computational simulations of aerodynamics problems and feats of robotic control such as autonomous helicopters. Others demonstrated the department's space systems control room from which students can guide the missions of high-altitude weather balloons and orbiting "Cubesat" microsatellites.
Graduate student Kevin Lohner's live demonstrations of firing a "hybrid" rocket engine rewarded onlookers with bright bursts of roaring flame. The technology involves combusting a solid fuel with a liquid oxidizer, resulting in a system that is lower cost and much safer than more traditional engines. The research, led by AA department Chair Brian Cantwell, may yield the fuel of choice for the embryonic space tourism industry.
And graduate student Deborah Meduna outlined how the department's undersea rover technology could be applied to environmental research, for instance, by giving researchers a view of icebergs from the bottom to track changes in their underwater surface as they melt.
"That's something that's never been done before," Meduna said.
And that makes it the perfect challenge for the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford.
David Orenstein is the communications and public relations manager at the Stanford School of Engineering.