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MIT and NASA: a match made in the heavens

NASA administrator Daniel Goldin's speech to the newest group of MIT graduates on Friday will be yet another point in a long line of collaborations between the space agency and MIT. From developing the guidance and navigation system that allowed Apollo astronauts to reach the lunar surface, to exploring the frontiers of X-ray astronomy with the Chandra Observatory, MIT has played a vital role working with NASA on the space program.

From 1961 to 2000, MIT received a total of $794 million in NASA funding. Draper Laboratory received an additional $248 million from NASA since its divestment from MIT in 1973. During the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2000, MIT received $21.5 million in NASA funding.

In fact, the creation of NASA in 1958 can be traced to the recommendation of former MIT President James R. Killian Jr., who served as President Eisenhower's special assistant for science and technology. Dr. Killian recommended that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) be transformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He also chaired a committee that recommended how missions and facilities should be allocated between the US military and civilian space programs.


As NASA was planning the Apollo project in the early 1960s, one of the greatest technical challenges was the problem of navigating a spacecraft from Earth to the moon. To solve this challenge, NASA selected the MIT Instrumentation Lab to design and develop the onboard guidance, navigation and control systems for both the Apollo command and lunar modules. The first major contract of the Apollo program was awarded to MIT on August 10, 1961. This milestoneoccurred just 10 weeks after President Kennedy announced the national goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

The late Institute Professor Charles Stark Draper recalled a pivotal meeting in 1961 with NASA Administrator James Webb and Deputy Administrator Robert C. Seamans Jr., an MIT alumnus (SM 1942, ScD) and professor emeritus.

"After some preliminary explanations of the mission plan being considered for Apollo, [we were asked] if guidance for the mission would be feasible during the 1960s decade," Professor Draper said. "We said 'Yes.' When we were asked if the Instrumentation Laboratory would take responsibility for the navigation and guidance system, we again said 'Yes.' They asked when the equipment would be ready. We said, 'Before you need it.' Finally, they asked, 'How do we know you're telling the truth?' I said, 'I'll go along and run it.'"

Although NASA did not take "Doc" Draper up on his offer to fly to the moon with the astronauts, the Instrumentation Lab delivered on its promise of building a reliable guidance and navigation system using computer technology available in the early 1960s. These first digital autopilots were limited to only 36,000 words of fixed memory and 2,000 words of RAM, and operated at a 12-microsecond clock speed.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of the capabilities of the Apollo guidance computer and the ingenuity of the engineers at the Instrumentation Lab occurred during the Apollo 14 mission, when a faulty abort switch in the lunar module threatened a successful landing. Within two hours, engineers wrote and tested new software which allowed the computer to ignore the erroneous abort signal and continue the landing sequence. This software was verbally transmitted to the astronauts and manually entered into the lunar module's computer, allowing astronauts Alan B. Shepard and Edgar D. Mitchell (ScD 1964) to execute a flawless landing on the moon.

The Apollo guidance computer performed flawlessly on 15 manned flights, including nine flights to the moon and six successful lunar landings. Astronaut David R. Scott (SM and EAA in aeronautic and astronautics, 1962), who used the Apollo guidance computer to navigate on two Apollo missions said, "With its computational capability, it was a joy to operate -- a tremendous machine. You could do a lot with it. It was so reliable, we never needed the backup systems. We never had a failure, and I think that is a remarkable achievement."

In addition to the vital role of MIT's Instrumentation Lab, MIT-educated engineers and scientists played a vital role within NASA and its contractors to execute a wide variety of tasks necessary to achieve the national goal of landing on the moon.

Professor Seamans served as NASA's deputy administrator from 1960-68 and provided overall management for the Apollo program. John F. McCarthy Jr. (SB 1950, SM 1951) was chief engineer of North American Aviation's Space Systems Division, which built the Apollo command and service modules and later joined the MIT faculty. Apollo's lunar module was built by Grumman Corporation under the leadership of Joseph G. Gavin Jr. (SB 1941, SM 1942).

In addition to Professor Seamans, several MIT faculty members and alumni served in senior positions at NASA. The late Professor Jerome C. Hunsaker (SM 1912, ScD 1923), who was the first head of the new Department of Aeronautical Engineering at MIT, served as chairman of NASA's predecessor, NACA, from 1941-56. The late Professor Raymond L. Bisplinghoff, former head of the Department of Aeronautics and former dean of engineering, was NASA's associate administrator for advanced research and technology from 1962-65.

Dr. Hans Mark (PhD 1954) was deputy administrator from 1981-84. Professor Jack L. Kerrebrock was associate administrator for aeronautics and space technology from 1981-83. Lt. General James Abrahamson (SB 1955) was associate administrator for the Space Transportation System from 1981-84 and directed the first flight tests of the space shuttle. Professor Wesley L. Harris was associate administrator for aeronautics from 1993-95.


Scientists and engineers at MIT pursued a wide variety of scientific research in support of NASA's efforts to advance the frontiers of science in space exploration.

In 1962, MIT's Lincoln Laboratory transmitted the first television picture, displaying the initials "M.I.T." via NASA's Echo I balloon communications satellite. The signal was bounced 2,700 miles across the country from California to Massachusetts. Lincoln Lab also led a research program to utilize radar in planetary astronomy beginning in 1958. Using an 84-foot antenna at Millstone Hill, radar and radiometric measurements were used to map the surfaces of the moon, Venus and Mars.

NASA's Electronics Research Center (ERC) was established in 1964 in Kendall Square near MIT to become the focal point of NASA's research program in electronics and as a training center for developing expertise in electronics. The ERC was the centerpiece of NASA Administrator Webb's desire to create a "university-industry-government complex" for the nation's space activities. The ERC was closed in 1970 as part of a budget reduction by the Nixon administration and the building was transferred to the Department of Transportation.

MIT's Center for Space Research was established in 1963 and Building 37 was built with NASA funding.

Under the leadership of the late Professor Herbert S. Bridge, MIT scientists developed a series of space plasma experiments that studied the properties of interplanetary plasma, the Earth's magnetosphere and the interaction of the solar wind with the planets. Beginning with Explorer 10 in 1961, Professor Bridge was the principal investigator for plasma measurement experiments on NASA planetary spacecraft that visited every planet in the solar system except Pluto.

Materials scientists under the leadership of Professors Harry G. Gatos and August F. Witt developed the first experiments to grow crystals in the microgravity environment aboard NASA's first space station, Skylab, in 1973. Materials science experiments in space continued with investigations of the characteristics of undercooled liquid metals on the International Microgravity Laboratory space shuttle mission in 1994 under the direction of the late Professor Julian Szekely. These investigations were continued on shuttle misison STS-94, the first Microgravity Science Laboratory in 1997 (MIT Tech Talk, April 9, 1997).

As the Apollo program came to an end in the early 1970s, NASA asked the MIT Instrumentation Lab to begin developing the space shuttle avionics system. Following its divestment from MIT in 1973, the renamed Draper Lab continued the development and testing of the space shuttle's flight control system for both on-orbit and powered flight operations. Draper Lab continues to play an active role in each space shuttle mission, verifying that the payload configuration won't cause adverse dynamic interactions with the flight control software.


Under the leadership of Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics Laurence R. Young, MIT participated in several space shuttle missions and conducted research into the adaptation of the human vestibular system to weightlessness. In 1997, Professor Young was named director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which helps direct NASA-sponsored space biomedical research.

In 1986, MIT shared in the tragedy of the Challenger accident with the death of astronaut Ronald E. McNair (PhD 1977 in physics). MIT Professor Eugene Covert served on the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger accident and recommended changes in the shuttle's solid rocket design and program management. The space shuttle returned to flight status when Frederick H. Hauck (SM 1966) commanded Discovery on the September 1988 shuttle mission.

MIT students and faculty have developed a series of experiments to evaluate the dynamics of structures in microgravity and to develop advanced laboratory tools for space research. These experiments have flown on several NASA shuttle missions including EASE in 1985, Middeck 0-gravity Dynamics Experiment in 1991, the Middeck Active Control Experiment II (MACE II) in 1995 and Enhanced Dynamic Load Sensors flown aboard the Russian Mir space station in 1996.


Based on MIT's expertise in radar, an MIT team lead by Professor Gordon Pettengill developed a radar instrument for the Magellan spacecraft which was used to map the surface of Venus beginning in 1990.

Professor Maria T. Zuber led a team of scientists to develop and use a laser altimeter aboard the Mars Global Surveyor that creates high-resolution elevation maps of the surface of Mars.

The late Institute Professor Bruno Rossi's research in X-ray astronomy paved the way for MIT's leadership in high-energy astronomy. MIT astronomers developed and operated a series of space satellites to advance knowledge in X-ray astronomy, beginning with an X-ray scanner that was launched aboard an Aerobee rocket in 1962 and discovered the first X-ray source in the universe besides the sun. They also included the SAS-3 in 1975, the High Energy Astronomical Observatory satellite in 1977 and the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer in 1995.

The Center for Space Research also developed the CCD Imaging Spectrometer and the High Energy Transmission Grating (HETG) for the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Launched in July 1999, and deployed in orbit by alumnus astronaut Catherine G. "Cady" Coleman (SB 1983), Chandra has joined Hubble as one of NASA's Great Observatories. Chandra mission operations are directed from a control room in Draper Lab near the MIT campus. Chandra is used to study exploding stars, quasars and black holes, revolutionizing the field of X-ray astronomy.

In October 2000, NASA launched the High Energy Transient Experiment spacecraft, which was designed and built at MIT to study cosmic gamma-ray bursts using a combination of UV, X-ray and gamma-ray instruments. The spacecraft functions like a trip wire to alert ground-based astronomers so that they can observe these events within seconds of their detection.


In 1993, President Charles M. Vest chaired the Space Station Design Review Panel, a presidential commission which made a series of recommendations about the final design of the International Space Station to President Clinton. The Vest report recommended "that NASA and the Clinton administration further pursue opportunities for cooperation with the Russians as a means to enhance the capability of the station, reduce cost, provide alternative access to the station and increase research opportunities."

Seven years later, the International Space Station became a reality when astronaut William M. Shepherd (OCE 1978) served as commander of the first crew to live and work aboard the space station starting in November 2000. MIT's MACE-II experiment was selected by NASA to become the first active scientific investigation performed on the ISS.

Under the leadership of Nobel laureate Samuel C.C. Ting, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Physics, MIT leads an international consortium for the development of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a particle physics experiment that will be one of the major experiments deployed on the International Space Station.

Lincoln Lab also continues to play a key role in several NASA-funded research programs, including the LINEAR program now underway to search for near-Earth comets. This program led to the recent discovery of Comet LINEAR, which gave astronomers the opportunity to watch a comet disintegrate as it made its closest approach to the sun.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 6, 2001.

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