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  Theodore von karman

 JPL Director, 1938 - 1944

Born May 11, 1881, in Budapest, Hungary, Theodore von Kármán was a pioneer in theoretical aerodynamics.  He studied under aerodynamicist Ludwig Prandtl at the University of Göttingen for six years, during which time he first explained what has become known as the “Kármán vortex street.” This describes how alternating pairs of vortices form in the wake of a cylindrical object.  Such vortices proved to have the ability to destroy even very large structures under special conditions.  His work on this and other aerodynamic problems, including the formulation of a new general theory of turbulence, attracted international attention.  He held a professorship at the Technische Hochschule (literally, “Technical High School,” but is equivalent to an American technical university) in Aachen, Germany until 1929.

In 1926, von Kármán began consulting with Caltech on the construction of a wind tunnel for the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the Institute, one of six such facilities funded by Daniel Guggenheim in the United States.  He was invited by Caltech president Robert A. Millikan to head the new laboratory in 1929, and he accepted the same year.  Von Kármán’s contributions to both Caltech and the United States were considerable.  He restructured aerodynamic education at Caltech to place it on a scientific/mathematical basis; his students adopted this innovation in their own positions in other American universities. 

In 1936, von Kármán helped a group of students establish an experimental rocket test facility in an arroyo a few miles from the Caltech campus (where frequent explosions wouldn’t hurt anything).  Eventually the test area would be funded by the U.S. Army but remained under operation Caltech’s operation.  It become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1944. (My grammar is probably wrong there.) He served as a valued advisor to the U.S. Air Force, leaving JPL in 1944 to establish the Air Force’s Scientific Advisory Board.  Finally, in 1949, he organized the Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development (AGARD) for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He received the first National Medal of Science from President Kennedy shortly before his death in May 1963, in Aachen.



Theodore von Karman

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