Moon partly in shadow

Photograph courtesy of NASA

MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections


C. S. Draper's bid for space, 1961


Earthrise viewed from
lunar orbit prior to landing

Photograph courtesy of NASA

MIT’s long relationship with NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, established in 1958) dates back to NASA’s predecessor, NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics).  NACA’s first technical report (1915), describing the behavior of airplanes in gusts of wind, was based on tests conducted at MIT and penned by MIT Professor Jerome C. Hunsaker.  As the “space race” between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. gained momentum in the late 1950s and early 1960s, NASA’s relationship with MIT accelerated, and the Institute entered into many agreements for space-related research.  NASA, for example, provided funds for the MIT Center for Space Research and contracted with MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory for the development of the Apollo Guidance System.

To Dr. Robert C. Seamans, Jr.
NASA Headquarters

“I would like to formally volunteer for service  as a crew member on the Apollo mission to the moon, and also for whatever suborbital and orbital flights that may be made in preparation for the lunar trip…”

    Charles Stark Draper
     Instrumentation Laboratory       November 21, 1961

Read the whole letter


The aim of Project Apollo was to put men on the moon and return them safely to Earth, a goal ultimately accomplished in 1969, but very remote in the early ‘60s.  The Apollo Guidance System was designed to track the spacecraft’s location and velocity during its three-day voyage to the Moon and subsequent return to Earth, and provide steering commands to keep it on the correct path.  It was also intended to control the descent of the lunar landing module and its return to the Moon-orbiting command module.  Charles Stark Draper, Director of the Instrumentation Lab, wanted to participate as an astronaut in addition to being one of Project Apollo’s chief engineers.  His 1961 letter to NASA’s Associate Director Robert C. Seamans, Jr. indicates that, despite being sixty years old, he felt that he was well suited to be the scientific and engineering member of a crew in space.  (Seamans had been Draper’s graduate student and teaching assistant at MIT in the 1940s and 1950s.)  “It should be easier,” Draper argued, “for me to learn the techniques of crew operations than for somebody else to acquire the capability I already possess.”

Draper’s letter and related materials are available for research in the records of  the Office of the MIT President, 1957-1966 (AC 134) at the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections (Room 14N-118). The papers of Robert C. Seamans, Jr. (MC 247) in the Archives include NASA-related interviews, committee reports, correspondence, press clippings, and other documents.  Other materials pertaining to MIT’s contributions to the space program are in the records of the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AC 43) and the MIT Corporation, Office of the Chairman (AC 118), and the papers of Frank Press (MC 159) and Albert Hill (MC 365).

Object of the Month: February 2007

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