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Aeronautical Lab Celebrates Its 75th

PASADENA, Calif. – It might seem a bit of a stretch to see what the flight control of a 747 and the way a boxfish maneuvers in very turbulent water have in common. But such thinking is all in a day's work within the walls of the California Institute of Technology's Graduate Aeronautical Laboratories (GALCIT), which this week celebrates its 75th anniversary.

It's fitting that GALCIT celebrates its 75th in the same year the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of flight. GALCIT's celebration will span two days, Friday and Saturday, November 14 and 15. On Friday there is an all-day symposium on solid mechanics and laboratory tours in the afternoon. On Saturday there will be presentations and a panel discussion on different aspects of aeronautical and astronautical research by various alumni and guests, followed by a banquet in the evening.

GALCIT was formally established in 1928 as the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory by a donation from the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. It was one of seven such donations made in the 1920s to advance the then-dismal state of aeronautical science in the United States. Its first director was Theodore von Kármán, one of the early scientific pioneers in aeronautics. Under his leadership, GALCIT became the birthplace of aeronautical research in Southern California. This led to the rapid development of the area's aeronautics industry in the 1930s, and ultimately to the modern aerospace industry. The original investment of the Guggenheim Foundation was the beginning of U.S. supremacy in aeronautics research, particularly for commercial and military aviation.

The most famous project of GALCIT was the establishment of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which today is the lead NASA institute for planetary exploration. It grew out of a combination of scholarly and popular interest in rocket propulsion. Beginning in 1935, GALCIT students and staff, including Frank Malina, A. M. O. Smith, H. S. Tsien, and W. Arnold, joined with two young explosives entrepreneurs, Jack Parsons and Ed Forman, to build and test rockets. The first long-duration solid propellant rocket motors and spontaneously ignitable liquid propellants were developed by the group. The solid propellants enabled the development of jet-assisted take-off rockets used in World War II and the founding of Aerojet Engineering Corporation, the first U.S. manufacturer of rocket engines. Ultimately, the liquid propellants were used in the Apollo program and the Titan missile. JPL was established as a separate organization in 1943 and now plays a key role in robotic activities in deep space and planetary exploration. The original concept of von Kármán was that GALCIT should be an institute in the European style that developed " . . . a tradition of research and teaching which stresses an appreciation for real applications in a very broad and deep base of fundamentals." Originally the application was strictly aeronautics, the development and operation of aircraft, and many contributions were made to aircraft structures, aerodynamics, and propulsion. But over the years the subject of aeronautics has been broadly interpreted to be "a wide discipline encompassing a broad spectrum of basic as well as applied problems in fluid dynamics and mechanics of materials." These days that's led to research into the study of fluid and solid mechanics, and the use of specialized large facilities like the Lucas Adaptive Wall Wind Tunnel, the supersonic shear layer facility, the free surface shear flow tunnel, the T5 hypervelocity shock tunnel, and the Ludwieg tube.

In addition, there are smaller laboratories to study cardiovascular fluid dynamics, combustion, and detonation. They also conduct numerical studies of vortex dynamics, turbulent mixing, fracture, the mechanics of materials, and shock waves.

All of which leads to the boxfish and the 747. It is just one specific example of the kind of work that goes on at GALCIT, and is part of the work of Morteza Gharib, the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioengineering at Caltech. Gharib believes the next wave of smart propulsion devices will be based on the biomechanics of flying and swimming. The goal, then, is to learn how nature engineers these things, with the hope of gleaning insight into the design of such aircraft as the 747. So one of the animals he studies is the humble boxfish, which is capable of staying within one millimeter of a sharp coral reef in highly turbulent water. It does this, Gharib notes, using "seven fins that are flapping and creating vortices here and there, keeping the fish right there, dead accurate."

Seventy-five years, and GALCIT is still learning.

For more information on the celebration and to register for events, please see

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