Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Professor Steven Schneider talks about creating a Mach-6 wind tunnel at Purdue

Steven Schneider has never been one to rush through anything. No, the Purdue University professor and aerospace engineer delights in the long term, undertaking projects that may last years, decades, forever.

He learned this about himself as a college student when he rode his bicycle across the United States in 1980. A simple revelation changed the course of his life. “I discovered I was pretty good at projects that take a long time,” he says. “They don’t bother me if I like what I’m doing along the way.”

That explains his dedication to a career spent imagining and then building a $1 million wind tunnel that runs quietly and effectively at 4,000 miles per hour—six times the speed of sound.

His interests at California Institute of Technology wavered between physics and engineering. Physics was too much work; he opted for engineering. He secured a bachelor’s degree, then went to work in San Diego for the U.S. Navy for two years.

Schneider spent time backpacking in the Sierras, trying to figure out what to do with his life. “I discovered I wasn’t as dumb as I thought I was after four years at Caltech. The more interesting problems were the ones that were harder to do and took a long time to work on, yet you couldn’t get them to give you those tasks without advanced degrees.”

So he left the Navy and went back to Caltech, leaving five years later with a master’s degree and PhD, which he calls “the background and union card” in aeronautics. He was well-educated, had an interest in fluid mechanics, and was itching to get focused on a project that would have real applications and make a difference in the world.

Schneider had been working on laminar-turbulent transition in water flows and wanted to further his research. Being a tenure-track professor was not a priority, but he knew he should link with a university to do his research. Purdue made an offer in 1989, and Schneider headed to West Lafayette. When he learned the campus had no low-turbulence wind or water tunnel, he decided to find a way to develop a high-speed transition-quality wind tunnel.

The nation’s only other supersonic low-noise tunnel was at NASA Langley Research Center. The experts in the technology were nearing retirement age, and Schneider saw an opportunity to continue their work. He visited Langley, landed some funding, and stayed there for a summer to learn everything he could from the experts who pioneered the technology.

Schneider secured some money from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) that allowed him and his students to develop a Mach-4 tunnel that was too limited to be of much use but had promise. Then, with encouragement from senior researchers and a half-million dollar grant from Boeing, hard work began to pay off. “I was telling people that I may fail if they stop funding me, but I won’t quit,” he recalls. There would always be work with the government or private industry, but he wanted to make the wind tunnel a reality at Purdue.

“They didn’t stop funding us,” Schneider says, “and we finally got the tunnel to work.” It is instrumental in the process of testing advanced aircraft and collecting data to measure air flow during flight. The wind tunnel, called the Boeing/AFOSR Mach-6 Quiet Tunnel, gives accurate data because it so closely simulates flight.

Schneider was responsible for the design, but it was students who carried out experiments and documented results. All but one of his graduate students has been involved, resulting in five PhD theses and 13 master’s theses about the project.

Schneider says he could never have developed the wind tunnel were it not for the backing of a research university. Such an environment, he says, is “the place to work on really tough long-term problems, taking risks to try to do really new and difficult things in areas that have a significant payoff to the United States, if you are fortunate enough to be successful.”

- Laura Lane