Tandon in Space

Celebrating Tandon's role in exploring the cosmos

Apollo 11 lunar module in space

 The Apollo 11 lunar module, 1969. Photo credit: NASA

The NYU Tandon School of Engineering has a long history of exploration, research, and groundbreaking advancement in aeronautics, aerodynamics, and astronautics, and some of our alumni and faculty members had a direct hand in the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on July 20, 1969.

Images courtesy of Poly Archives, NYU Libraries

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of that historic event, we invite you to watch a video featuring Industry Professor Gunter Georgi, who as a young engineer performed the thermal analysis on the lunar module, and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department Chair Richard Thorsen, who served as a consultant to Northrup Grumman for decades and worked on such projects as the lunar module, F14 Tomcat, and space shuttle fuel system.

In fact, ever since the Space Race got seriously underway, members of the Tandon community have been making contributions.


The Early Years

The aeronautics program at NYU was the first ever offered at an American University.

The first lectures in aeronautics were given at NYU in February of 1922 by Alexander Klemin, who taught the topic at MIT and was also in charge of experimental work at McCook Field during the First World War. By September 1923, the University had appointed him as Associate Professor of Aeronautical Engineering. 

In 1925, with an endowment from Daniel Guggenheim, the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics was founded, and the University Heights campus later also boasted a 1,500-square-foot aerospace laboratory, thanks to a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Among the earliest students to explore leaving the bounds of Earth were the members of the Glider Club, established in 1929. The club grew steadily as a new course, Aerodynamics and Airplanes Structures, was added to the mechanical engineering curriculum, and the president of the group once presciently asserted that the club would doubtlessly furnish the aviation industry with much-needed expertise and personnel.

The 1940s and ‘50s were a time of expansion within the field of aviation in general – as well as at NYU and the school known before its merger with the University as the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. In 1942 the first Master of Science degrees in Aeronautical Engineering were awarded at Poly, and the school’s AE Department boasted world-renowned faculty who regularly conducted research in collaboration with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA.

  • Nicholas Hoff became a professor of aeronautics in 1940 and later chair of the aeronautical engineering and applied mathematics department from 1950-1957. During his time at Poly, Hoff worked on aircraft stability and structure specifically testing aluminum fuselages under extreme pressure and heat, and today is considered one of the great contributors to modern jet airplane construction and safety – concerns that carried over into the era of spacecraft design.

  • Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, an aerospace engineer who once served as the president of India, was largely responsible for spearheading that country’s space program. Interestingly, there is a direct line between him and Poly: his professor, mentor, and major influence was Krishnan Aditya Varman Pandalai, who had earned master’s and doctoral degrees in 1950 and 1955, respectively, as a student of Nicholas Hoff, and who had taught for a time on the Brooklyn campus before returning to Madras to inspire a new generation of aerospace engineers.

  • In 1953, under the leadership of famed Professor Antonio Ferri, an expert in hypersonic thermofluid dynamics, Poly’s aeronautical engineers and applied mathematicians began developing the world’s most advanced hypersonic wind tunnel. Research conducted at the facility resulted in patents that aided NASA in its very early research into the possibilities of space flight.

  • In 1959 the name of the program was changed from Aeronautical Engineering to Aeronautics and Astronautics.

  • In 1965, NASA funded the research of Professor of Meteorology and Oceanography Willard Pierson, Jr., who was investigating ways in which to predict ocean waves, part of the agency's mission to develop an understanding of the total Earth system and the effects of natural and human-induced changes on the global environment.

  • In 1966 NASA helped fund the construction of a $1 million research lab at the school’s Graduate Center, in Farmingdale, Long Island. In addition to Ferri’s hypersonic wind tunnel, the facility boasted cutting-edge equipment that allowed for research into such areas as interplanetary communications and was the site of frequent symposia and seminars sponsored by NASA.

  • The school did not stop growing and innovating after those auspicious early years: in 1991 the Center for Applied Large-Scale Computing was established, and its researchers went on to design software for NASA’s Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network. 


Following in the Footsteps of Ferri

  • As an engineer at Grumman Aircraft, faculty member Thomas Joseph Kelly led the team that designed and tested NASA’s first lunar module – an assignment he once described as “an aerospace engineer’s dream job of the century.”  His two-stage landing vehicle, which earned him the distinction of being called “the father of the lunar module,” was successful in descending to the Moon’s surface and then returning Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Apollo Command Module for the flight back to Earth. In 1972 NASA awarded him its Distinguished Public Service Medal, and two decades later he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
  • Iraj Kalkhoran, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and associate dean of undergraduate and graduate academics, spent much of his career researching high-speed and supersonic aerodynamics and aero-propulsion. While Kalkhoran was known for his work into thrust reversing and vectoring, he also worked for many years on research happening at the school’s Long Island-based hypersonic wind tunnel and aerodynamics laboratory developed by Ferri. 
  • In 2014, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Nikhil Gupta developed a fiber-optic sensor that can carefully and safely monitor the durability of composite materials within aircraft and spacecraft under intense pressure and heat. Gupta has led a research team that’s developing a compression-molding-based, large-scale processing method to produce syntactic foams — exceptionally strong and light materials being used within aircraft structural parts and rocket boosters. With aircraft and aerospace components being produced through additive manufacturing and 3D printing, Gupta is also taking on the increasing problem of counterfeit components, which can have devastating consequences if they fail during flight. 


Our Astronauts

  • Charlie Camarda, who earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1974, joined NASA’s Langley Research Center shortly after graduating from what was then known as the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. As a research scientist at Langley, he demonstrated that it was feasible to have a heat-pipe-cooled leading edge on a space shuttle (much of his work was conducted in Langley’s impressive high-temperature tunnel). In 1983 he was named one of the top innovators of the year by Industrial Research Magazine for his heat-pipe-cooled sandwich panel — just one of his many patents. In 1996 Camarda was chosen as an astronaut candidate, and he flew into space for the first time as a mission specialist aboard the Discovery, which marked the first "Return to Flight" space shuttle mission since 2003, when the Columbia disintegrated upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. As an engineer, he was torn between flying the mission and continuing to work on solving the structural problems that had led to the Columbia disaster. Ultimately, however, when the Discovery launched on July 26, 2005, Camarda was one of seven crew members aboard, fulfilling a dream he had held since childhood. Camarda later served as engineer-in-residence at NYU Tandon, where he taught both university-level courses and K12 programs

  • Paolo Nespoli (’88, ‘89) was always a hard-driving person. A native of Milan, he had come to the U.S. to attend what was then known affectionately as Poly after spending almost a decade in the Italian military, and thanks to intensive summer courses and extreme focus, he was able to earn both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in aerospace engineering within only four years of his arrival. In 2007 he proved he was not only hard-driving, but high-flying. That year, as a mission specialist with the Italian Space Agency, he flew on Space Shuttle Mission STS-120, which delivered and installed an Italian-built module dubbed the Harmony Node 2 to the International Space Station (ISS), allowing European and Japanese labs to be added to the burgeoning facility. In late 2010 Nespoli embarked on a second mission to the ISS. While STS-120 had taken him into space for just two weeks, the MagISStra mission, as it was called, lasted 159 days. Nespoli, serving as flight engineer, performed various scientific experiments and technology demonstrations and helped dock two cargo craft (Europe’s second Automated Transfer Vehicle and Japan’s second HII Transfer Vehicle) before returning to Earth on May 24, 2011. On July 28, 2017 Nespoli set forth on his third mission to the ISS. Launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, he and crewmates Randy Bresnik and Sergey Ryazanskiy spent more than four months together at the orbital complex, conducting experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science, and Earth science before returning to Earth in December. With the completion of that mission, Nespoli had logged his 313th day in space.


Our Other Noted Alumni

  • Jay Greene (’64) had a tenure at NASA that coincided with a golden age of space exploration. He was at Mission Control when Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit, circle the moon, and return safely to Earth, and he oversaw the flight dynamics console during the descent of the lunar module in 1969, after Apollo 11 had carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon. He was serving as flight director when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart on January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds into its flight, marking the first time NASA had lost a crew in flight, and he subsequently accepted a post as head of NASA's newly created safety division. He later went on to take a series of other senior posts within the agency, including Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration, Manager of the Space Shuttle Engineering Office, Deputy Manager for Technical Development on the International Space Station (ISS), and Chief Engineer at Johnson Space Center.

  • In 1972 alum  Jacob David Bekenstein (’69) proposed that black holes have entropy, an idea that was subsequently further developed by Stephen Hawking.

  • Randy Frey (’79) is the founder of Autonomous Technologies, a company that developed laser radar (LADAR) technology for NASA and Star Wars space born tracking applications.

To learn about a few more recent alumni, read our profiles of Nick Mitchell, who has forged a long aerospace career at Lockheed Martin, and John Zipay of NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. 


Our Relationship with NASA Continues

When the final Atlantis mission brought an end to the shuttle program in 2011, members of the school’s mechatronics program exhibited several robotics projects at a gala event to showcase the possibilities of NASA’s post-shuttle space program.

In 2016, visitors from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) walked on Mars, explored a 3D prototype and even dangled a rover over the audience's head during an augmented reality demo and talk at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering MakerSpace.

Tandon mechanical engineering graduate student Shane Carberry Mogan and Professors of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Angelo Tafuni and Iskender Sahin assisted NASA in the conceptual design of an autonomous submarine to navigate the liquid hydrocarbon seas of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in 2017. They advised the space agency on submarine design modifications, navigation techniques, and ideal locations and depths for conducting research. To simulate the interactions between the submarine and the extraterrestrial seas, the team used computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which allowed them to run simulations on various scenarios that would otherwise take very long and would be very expensive to build, construct, and test.

Imagining NASA’s bold missions to the Moon and Mars got a boost of creativity in 2018 during the Project Mars International Film and Art Competition; the winning film, chosen from more than 500 submitted, was Rendezvous with Mars by NYU Tandon School of Engineering Integrated Digital Media alumni Mayukh Goswami, Subigya Basnet, and Divya More.

A voyage to space doesn’t always require a ride in a rocket. The OpenSpace Project, a NASA-funded open-source collaboration lets people — with a laptop or in planetariums using the system — visit the planets, voyage to the far reaches of the solar system, and venture to the ends of the universe. The immersive visualization platform, whose developers include Claudio Silva, professor of computer science and engineering; and Jonathas Campi Costa, research associate, at NYU Tandon’s Visualization and Data Analytics Center (ViDA) will be front and center at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York on Saturday, July 20, 2019. Carter Emmart, the museum’s Director of Astrovisualization will employ OpenSpace for two free public presentations recreating the Apollo 11 moon landing.


Our Students Explore New Frontiers

As commercial spaceflight and the colonization of Mars become ever-more realistic, our graduates are at the ready. With students now competing in the annual NASA challenge to design and build a Mars rover and others engaged in hands-on rocketry research we expect our list of space-related accomplishments to get even longer. Because where there are frontiers to cross, NYU Tandon will be crossing them.