(August 24, 2020) AIAA LA-LV Member Spotlight on Prof. Jason L. Speyer

Prof. Jason L. Speyer
Member, National Academy of Engineering

Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Professor,
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department and
the Electrical Engineering Department, UCLA

AIAA Mechanics and Control of Flight Award
AIAA Dryden Lectureship in Research
AIAA Guidance, Navigation, and Control Award
Air Force Exceptional Civilian Decoration (1991 and 2001)
IEEE Third Millennium Medal
Richard E. Bellman Control Heritage Award

My very early focus in aeronautics and current wildest hopes

During the New England winters when I was about eight years old, I would pray for snow. Since I lived in a small city called Malden about four miles due north of downtown Boston, having a few snow storms in the winter was quite likely. It was not in my interest to crave snow so they might cancel school, which often happened, nor was I a big fan of winter sports, although I enjoyed ice hockey and an occasional snowball fight was great fun. To play hockey all you needed was a cold spell to freeze the nearby lake. The reason I prayed for snow was that once the storm was over, I offered to shovel away the snow on my neighbors’ driveways and walkways. I would work into the early night, making about a quarter to thirty five cents a driveway. Once having secured about sixty five to seventy five cents, I would beg my mother to drive me to the hobby store that was about three miles from our home where I would be able to buy two airplane model kits, each a quarter and a tube of glue for ten cents. These were balsa model kits that produced rather large models that flew, but usually not very well. It would take me about a week to finish one, and usually hung it up in my bedroom near the ceiling. There were all kinds of aircraft, from the British Spad and German Fokker to the spitfire and P-38 flying tiger. The construction of these balsa models had many similarities to the structure of old canvas covered aircraft, such as the Aeronca Model 7 Champion . The wings had balsa spars and cords that were covered with tissue paper, which after being wet would dry and shrink to be taut (make sure the grain of the paper is set correctly). The motor was a rubber band that came with the kit, which when tightly wound gave a bit of power once released.When there was no room to hang a new airplane model, I would take an old one, climb what we called the mountain, and launch it over a cliff. Sometimes they went well, but some were disappointing flyers.

In some sense I have never grown out of my fascination with flying machines: aircraft or spacecraft. Nevertheless, at eight I had a lot to learn. If I had some understanding of stability and control, maybe I could have enhanced how my planes flew. After all, the Wright brothers’ understanding of aircraft stability is their essential contribution. Although the technical breadth within aeronautics and astronautics is enormous, stability and control of aircraft or more generally the technical area of guidance, navigation, and control from both a theoretical and applied perspective has been the focus of my career. Currently, working with JPL, I am developing algorithms for navigating and guiding spacecraft in deep space. In particular, I have been focused on using pulsars that operate like a natural GPS system. I do hope in my lifetime that we will send a spacecraft 550 astronomical units from the sun. Starting at that distance, light will focus, because light passing the sun bends due to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, forming what is called a solar gravitational lens. If the spacecraft is guided to the right trajectory, then looking back toward the sun, we could see the planetary system of Alpha Centauri B. Since the magnification is about a billion, then we might see a planet of Alpha Centauri B with resolution of less than a kilometer.

I close with a short biography. I received the B.S. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, Cambridge, in 1960 and the Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard University,
Cambridge, MA, in 1968. I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Technion in 2013. Currently, I am the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department and the Electrical Engineering Department, UCLA. With W. H. Chung I coauthored, Stochastic Processes, Estimation, and Control (SIAM, 2008), with D. H. Jacobson I coauthored, Primer on Optimal Control Theory (SIAM, 2010) and with Amir Emadzazdeh I coauthored, Navigation in Space by X-ray Pulsars (Springer, 2011). I served as Associate Editor for Technical Notes and Correspondence (1975–1976) and Stochastic Control (1978–1979), IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control , for AIAA Journal of Guidance, Control, and Dynamics (1977–1978), and for Journal of Optimization Theory and Applications (1981-present). I am a life Fellow of the IEEE and Honorary Fellow of the AIAA and was awarded the AIAA Mechanics and Control of Flight Award, AIAA Dryden Lectureship in Research, Air Force Exceptional Civilian Decoration (1991 and 2001), IEEE Third Millennium Medal, AIAA Guidance, Navigation, and Control Award, Richard E. Bellman Control Heritage Award, and membership in the National Academy of Engineering.

Prof. Jason L. Speyer

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