Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
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From the UofM to the Moon: Acknowledging Distinguished AEM Graduate Robert Gilruth

October 8, 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Gilruth, an outstanding graduate of the Department. Gilruth was a moving force in the establishment of the Manned Space Program and was Director of the NASA Johnson Space Center during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Programs. Earlier he defined the field of aircraft handling qualities as it is now practiced. Robert Rowe Gilruth (October 8, 1913-August 17, 2000) was born in Nashwauk, Minnesota. He completed high school in Duluth and received his bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1935. While persuing his master's degree at the University of Minnesota, Gilruth worked with Professor Jean Piccard, a pioneer in high altitude research and ballooning. Gilruth also married fellow aeronautical engineering student Jean Barnhill. Barnhill was an accomplished pilot and participated in cross-country races. Gilruth himself never learned to fly.

After completing his master's degree in 1936, Gilruth began work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at the Langley research center in Virginia. Gilruth made his first major contribution there in defining quantitative criteria for the flying and handling qualities of airplanes. Gilruth correctly determined that flying qualities were determined by the short period motions of the aircraft. Heretofore, investigators had assumed flying qualities were determined by the long period or phugoid motions and had made no progress in this area. Gilruth's work in flying qualities defined the field and his concept of stick force per "g" is still an important metric in defining the flying characteristics of aircraft.

Gilruth next turned his talent to high speed flight and his work in planetary entry vehicles resulted in his being selected as the first director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center, later renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. His leadership in the United States' manned space flight program included the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. When NASA was created from NACA, Gilruth became head of the Space Task Group, tasked with putting a man in space before the Soviet Union. When the Soviets were in the lead, Gilruth suggested to President John F. Kennedy that the United States should announce a larger goal, - going to the Moon. Soon the Apollo program was born, and Gilruth was made head of the NASA center which ran it, the new Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) (now the Johnson Space Center). Gilruth served as director of JSC until 1972 and oversaw a total of 25 manned space flights, from Mercury-Redstone 3 to Apollo 15.

In convincing President John F Kennedy to undertake landing a human on the moon, Gilruth recalled telling the President:

"Well, you've got to pick a job that's difficult - that's new - that they'll (the Soviet Union) will have to start from scratch. They can't just take their old rocket and put another gimmick on it and do something we can't do. It's got to be something that requires a great big rocket - like going to the moon. Going to the moon will take new rocket technology, and if you want to do that, I think our country could probably win because we'd both have to start from scratch."

History proved Gilruth to be correct. The photograph shows Gilruth showing President Kennedy a model of an entry capsule. Then Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson can be seen in the background.

Gilruth's many honors and awards include the following:

  • Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Minnesota and several other institutions
  • Member of the National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences
  • Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Royal Aeronautics Society
  • Robert R. Collier Trophy
  • President's Award for Distinguished Civil Service

For more information on Gilruth, follow this link to the Star Tribune's October 7th tribute to his lifetime achievements. A biographical memoir of Dr. Gilruth can also be found at:

Last Modified: Monday, 14-Mar-2016 11:31:31 CDT -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation