'One Small Step,' history of AAE, revisited

A look back on the process of creating "One Small Step: The History of Aerospace Engineering at Purdue University," initially published for the School's 50th anniversary in 1995.
Professors A.F. Grandt Jr.,  L.T. Cargnino and W.A. Gustafson combined to write "One Small Step" initially in 1995.

A.F. (Skip) Grandt Jr. has a poster hanging on the wall behind his desk, snuggled in an office inside Wang Hall.

It’s a list of his family’s genealogy, a subject that fascinates him.

Makes sense, then, that when the 50th anniversary for the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics was approaching in 1995, Grandt’s mind started churning while he was on sabbatical. What about a genealogy, of sorts, for the history of aeronautical engineering at Purdue and the School?

“We ought to do something,” Grandt told good friend and AAE colleague W.A. (Gus) Gustafson, who has a shared interest in family genealogy.

Both thought it was important to document the School, and the anniversary seemed to provide a good reason to do it.

The timing was right, too.

“I had just stepped aside as head, so I had time to do it,” said Grandt, who served as head of the School from 1985-1993. “I was interested in it. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. It was something I wanted to do. The fact that I was born the same month the new independent School of Aeronautics was established was also a motivating factor.”

Grandt also had a key resource to get started: A report from Elmer F. Bruhn, the School’s first head in 1945.

“Elmer Bruhn wrote about the 1937-1950 period when he retired in 1967. It was an internal report that had never been widely distributed. I always thought we should do something with it, his personal recollections of a lot of stuff that went on,” Grandt said. “I thought, ‘That’d be a way to do something like this.’ I edited the dickens out of it and wanted to get it distributed because I thought it was interesting. I don’t know if anybody else did. But this was an excuse to do it.”

Bruhn’s internal report was supplemented by other resources that described the first Purdue Aero Club in 1910 and aeronautical engineering classes taught by the School of Mechanical Engineering beginning in 1921 to provide material for the first three chapters of the eight-chapter first-edition book.

Grandt recruited others to help, too.

L.T. Cargnino, who joined the School in 1945 and taught until his retirement in 1984, wrote about the 1950s. Gustafson, an associate head in the department from 1979-1998, wrote the chapters about the 1960s and 1970s, including information about the merger with the Engineering Sciences program. It was a turbulent period in the School’s history, but it was important, too, to flesh out details of an Engineering Sciences program that produced many distinguished alumni.

Grandt handled the rest of the book and worked with others in the department to assemble lists of degrees and graduates. Documenting graduate students was complicated by the fact that the registrar’s office didn’t distinguish between specific majors during the first years of the School, simply recording students as being in the graduate school. Fortunately, the School kept its own internal list, which was presented in the book.

The first edition, called “One Small Step: The History of Aerospace Engineering at Purdue University,” was published in 1995, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the School.

A second edition of the book was released in 2010 following what the authors called in the foreword “a most exciting period in the School’s history” for its growth in academic and research programs, new faculty, increased recognition and a relocation to Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering.

Grandt said documenting the history of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics was one of the most rewarding projects in his 40-plus-year career at Purdue.

“Searching university records for old photographs and documents, corresponding with staff and alumni, and sharing the school’s vibrant history with current students has been truly gratifying,” Grandt said. “As the School and I both celebrate our 75th birthdays in July, we’re grateful for the opportunity to have contributed to Purdue’s sustained tradition of academic excellence. Moreover, the fact that the school currently enjoys record enrollments indicates that it is well positioned to expand its legacy as one of the world’s major academic institutions.”

The School’s 75th anniversary is July 1, 2020, and over the course of the academic year, AAE will celebrate many of its past accomplishments and programs and also look ahead to what’s next for the School and aerospace engineering.

Interested in reading details of 100 years of aerospace engineering at Purdue, including the last 75 years as an independent program? Copies of the 2nd edition of “One Small Step: The History of Aerospace Engineering at Purdue University” are available for purchase.