History of AIAA
At midnight on 31 January 1963, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) officially began operating. The results of years of careful planning, AIAA was a new society formed by the merger of two venerable predecessor societies, the American Rocket Society, which had begun in 1930 as the American Interplanetary Society, and the Institute of the Aerospace Sciences, established in 1932 as the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences. Although many of the roughly 36, 500 total members in both societies had argued against the merger, the vote was strongly in favor of combining. The hard part, that of sorting out over 60 years’ combined activities of publications, awards, local sections, and staff, was still ahead.
In 1963, the two great aerospace societies of the day merged. The American Rocket Society and the Institute of Aerospace Science* joined to become AIAA. Both brought long and eventful histories to the relationship – histories that stretched back to the 1930s, a time when rocketry was the stuff of science fiction and the aviation business was still in its infancy.
Each society left its distinct mark on AIAA. The merger combined the imaginative, risk-taking, shoot-for-the-moon outlook of Project Mercury-era rocket, missile, and space professionals with the more established, well-recognized, industry-building achievers of the aviation community. The resulting synergy has benefited aerospace ever since.
Today, the Institute continues to be the principal voice, information resource, and publisher for aerospace engineers, scientists, managers, policymakers, students, and educators. AIAA is also the go-to resource for stimulating professional accomplishment and standards-driven excellence in all areas of aerospace for prominent corporations and government organizations worldwide.
*The two societies were originally the American Interplanetary Society and the Institute of Aeronautical Science.
The Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences could trace it roots back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when English engineers began to define themselves through membership in distinct societies. The American counterparts of these
societies came later in the 19th century, with such venerable groups as the mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, mining and metallurgical engineers, electrical engineers, and civil engineers. Flying clubs were established, such as the
Boston Aeronautical Society (1895) and the Aeronautical Society of America (1907), but they were more devoted to the aviator than to the engineer.
In 1910, the Harvard-Boston Air Meet inspired two MIT graduates to pursue their interest in aeronautics. Jerome Hunsaker (1886-1984) received the first Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from an American university and headed the Aircraft Division of the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Lester Gardner (1876-1956) produced the journal Aviation and Aeronautical Engineering in 1916, which was later sold to McGraw Hill and became Aviation Week and Space Technology. Both men did tours of Europe and returned to the U.S. determined to promote aeronautical engineering; they were particularly impressed by the work of the Royal Aeronautical Society and wanted to duplicate it.
The first official meeting of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences (IAS) was at the Yale Club in New York on October 17, 1932 with Jerome Hunsaker as President. It would be a cross between a sort of club for gentlemen engineers and a professional society that would enable elite specialists to interact with colleagues in other disciplines. From the start there would be several different classes of membership depending on the degree of technical experience of the members, from Junior Members to Honorary Fellows (the first Honorary Fellow of the IAS was Orville Wright). The elite status of the society was very important, and no women were allowed – even Amelia Earhart was turned down for membership. This decision stood until 1939.
Having determined the need for a quarterly journal, the IAS’ first technical publication was the proceedings of its Founders’ Meeting in 1933, titled the Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, and became a monthly publication in 1935. From the beginning, the journal included a section called “News form the Institute, which included meeting notices, news from headquarters, obituaries, and publications of interest. By 1944, however, this information was published in a separate publication, the Aeronautical Engineering Review.
At first, the IAS headquarters were in Gardner’s home or borrowed offices. In 1933, however, the IAS took up residence in the most prestigious skyscraper in the world – Rockefeller Center. The space was secured partly on the recommendation of Edwin Aldrin, the manager of aviation activities for Standard Oil of New Jersey. Rockefeller Center allowed the IASD free space for a year in order to attract other aeronautical companies. The IAS remained there for the next 12 years. During this time, the IAS hired its first full-time staff members. The IAS also created their official seal, which remained the logo of the Institute until it merged with the ARS in 1963.
Although the IAS was headquartered in New York, there was a concern that much of the development of aviation was shifting to the West Coast, far from headquarters. This led to the creation of the Pacific Coast Section of the IAS in December 1934. It included Donald Douglas, John Northrop, Gerard Vultee, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, and many other notable names in aviation.
In addition to classes of membership, the IAS from the start also established awards, including endowed awards, and those named for aeronautical pioneers. The IAS also cooperated with other societies in honoring aeronautical pioneers, including the Guggenheim Medal, the Musick Memorial Trophy, and the Robert J. Collier Trophy.
After the creation of the Pacific Coast section, others soon followed and by 1944 there were nine active sections: Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Texas, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Seattle, made up of more than 10,000 members. In addition, 862 student members were enrolled in 34 active Student Branches. Other administrative developments included the establishment of nine standing committees for administering the institute, and nine Technical Committees on specialized technical areas. Specialist meetings focused on specific segments of the industry and specific technical problems were starting to be scheduled at this time.
In addition to the presentation of information, it was quite important to the IAS to archive information – this sprang from the original ideas of Lester Gardner, who felt that meeting the informational needs of the members was one of the most important services the Institute could provide. Gardner devoted several hundred personal items to establish an IAS library, and encouraged others to do the same. He had reciprocal arrangements with international organizations to trade aeronautical journals, and by 1935 the library received 44 journals from around the world each month. In 1941 the IAS established the Pacific Aeronautical Library in Los Angeles.
With the growth of the library, however, came another challenge – that of knowing what was available. Gardner felt it was vital to prepare a bibliography of some kind, and he approached the New York City Department of Plants and Structures for Aviation, suggesting that such a project could be done by unemployed engineers and aeronautical professionals. The Emergency Relief Bureau of New York agreed to fund the effort, which was taken over by the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935. The complete Aeronautical Index was issued in 1938. It consisted of 28 volumes made up of 50 separate bibliographies covering the entire range of aviation topics. The project produced some two million entries, employed more than 100 people, and cost $150,000.
In addition to books, the IAS began to get donations of other items, including prints, aeronautical ephemera, badges, buttons, models, trophies, paintings, and other aviation-related items. The Aeronautical Archive of the IAS Collection, as it was known, grew to include over 23,000 items, including a copy or photocopy of every book or pamphlet on aeronautics published before 1900. Today, the collection resides at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
In 1946, the IAS headquarters moved to the former Berwind Mansion, on East 64th Street in New York, including a Reading Room that was open to the public. Much of the IAS collection was then able to be put on display, and there was even a
museum there for a period of time.
By this time, Lester Gardner was 70 years old, and had administered the Institute for 14 years. His successor, Samuel Paul Johnston, a former World War I Army aviator and engineer, became the new Executive Director in April, 1946. Also that year, the IAS held seven national meetings, having had to curtail them during the war years.
Over the next few years, the IAS built two buildings on the West Coast, in San Diego and Los Angeles. The Western Office and the Pacific Coast Library were there, and they also rented the space to the NACA, California Western University and other companies.
Under Paul Johnston, the IAS continued to gather technical information, but began to face the challenge of how to keep track of the ever-growing volume of literature. An index of the latest technical articles in the field, covering 33 periodicals, had been published in the Aeronautical Engineering Review since 1936, but Johnston thought there might be a better way to organize the information. A consultant suggested that the IAS take the lead in the business of indexing and abstracting, and the IAS received a contract from the Army Air Force to develop a Standard Aeronautical Index. The contract produced a thesaurus of terms and list of categories that would be used by all U.S. aeronautical abstractors. In 1954, the IAS created International Aerospace Abstracts, funded by NASA.
By 1958, the IAS began to see a drop in membership. Aeronautics, which had been a leading technology, now seemed archaic. Between 1954 and 1964 there was an immense shift in the emphasis from aviation to space, and the term “aerospace” started to be used more and more. To keep up with this sift, the IAS changed from the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences to the Institute of the Aerospace Sciences, and the Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences became the Journal of the Aero/Space Sciences.
In sharp contrast to the IAS, the American Rocket Society (ARS) started in a very different way. It began in Nino and Nella’s, an Italian restaurant/speakeasy in the West Chelsea section of New York City. There, the Pendrays,
Gawain Edward (1901-1987) and his wife, Leatrice (Lee) Gregory, met with their friends to talk enthusiastically about the possibilities of space travel. The Pendrays regularly contributed to Science Wonder Stories, a science fiction
magazine owned by Hugo Gernsbach, best known for starting the first science fiction publication, Amazing Stories. Ed and Lee often invited David Lasser, the editor of Science Wonder Stories, and other contributors, to story conferences
at Nino and Nella’s. From there they would adjourn upstairs to the Pendray’s apartment to continue their discussions on the prospect of space flight. At some point one evening, David Lasser suggested that they organize, and
the American Interplanetary Society was born. On April 4, 1930, eleven men and one woman signed their names to a sheet of typing paper, making them the official founding members, with David Lasser as the first president. They quickly
signed up other members, using Gernsbach’s publications for recruitment. One early member, listed as having joined while “at sea,” must have been Midshipman Robert Heinlein; the future science fiction writer was serving
at the time on board the USS Lexington. By the end of 1931, the society had 100 members. The society had already begun to publish, starting with a four-page mimeographed newsletter offering a mix of news and information in June
Pendray replaced Lasser as president in 1932, and the AIS Bulletin changed from a mere mimeographed version to the more formally printed Astronautics. The AIS itself was also changing. Ed and Lee Pendray took a trip to Europe, where they visited with rocket enthusiasts there. They were particularly excited to meet members of the German Rocket Society, which at the time was starting to build and test liquid propellant rockets. Ed Pendray returned to the U.S. determined to do the same, and the AIS began redefining its central purpose. From a society that existed to promote the wonders of space travel, it had become a society seriously building and testing small rockets.
AIS #1, as their first rocket was called, was to be launched on November 12, 1931. It had cost the grand sum of $49.40 - $30.60 for the rocket and $18.89 for the test stand, propellant, batteries, and other supplies. Most of their supplies were donated, or improvised – the aluminum can that served as a water jacket for the motor was actually a malted milk shaker, for example. The launch site chosen was an empty farm field near Stockton, New Jersey. Unfortunately, the rocket slipped while being mounted, fell to the ground and was twisted out of alignment, ending its short career.
AIS#2 was built of salvaged parts from #1, along with bailing wire, razor blades, and other cast-offs. It had balsa wood fins and valves scavenged from gas light fixtures. The group received permission to launch the rocket in Great Kills Park, on Staten Island, and on 14 May 1933, they held the first public launch of a rocket, captured by crews from both Acme and Universal Newsreels. The rocket roared 250 feet into the air, where the oxygen tank burst and fell into lower New York Bay.
Due to these continuing experiments, the society decided to rename itself the American Rocket Society (ARS) in 1934. Most of the original science fiction crowd had left, to be replaced by scientists and engineers.
The ARS continued their experiments, off an on, throughout the decade, refining and adding to their designs. Several young engineers, including James Wyld, Franklin Pierce, John Shesta, and Lovell Lawrence, had contributed many refinements to the motors and designs. On December 18, 1941, they formed Reaction Motors, Incorporated, the first American company founded to produce liquid-propellant rockets, based on the work the group had done with the ARS. They had formed the company in order to do business with the U.S. government, which would not contract with individuals.
During World War II the organization continued to publish Astronautics and received increasing numbers of requests for information on rockets. A realization of the need for professional information led to a redefinition of the ARS into a
technical society to meet the professional needs of a growing number of scientists and engineers. The first step was to establish an office, and hire staff. The first permanent employees was Agnes “Billie” Slade, a former secretary
of Ed Pendray’s whom he convinced to man the ARS office for two days a week. At this point there were exactly 237 dues-paying members. In 1947 the society passed new by-laws that included official grades of membership, added four
regional sections, established subcommittees for technical specialties (reaction motor development, fuels and combustion; instrumentations and communications; and aerodynamics and space problems), and named three national awards. Astronautics
had become The Journal of the American Rocket Society.
In 1953,the ARS hired James Harford as its first Executive Director, who oversaw, and was a key element of, years of spectacular growth for the Society. Within two years, he had increased the Corporate members from 10 to 61, and the membership to over 4,000 – a number that would reach 21,000 by the end of the 1950s. The five original sections grew to 26 at this time, and the ARS held or participated in eight major meetings in 1955 alone. Harford remained as Executive Director of the ARS and later AIAA until 1988.
Because of World War II and the early challenges of rocket development during the Cold War, they ARS had largely ignored the issue of spaceflight for close to a decade. This changed in 1950, when the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) invited the ARS to participate in the Second International Congress of Astronautical Societies, the predecessor of the IAF. This meeting’s purpose was to publicize the fact that spaceflight would shortly become reality. Several ARS members enthusiastically participated, and serious discussions about space flight with the ARS led to the creation of an Ad Hoc Space Flight Committee. The subject was a controversial one; more conservative ARS members did not want to focus heavily on space flight; others felt the ARS was not doing enough. These members ultimately formed the American Astronautical Society (AAS) to promote space flight on a national level. This led the ARS to reevaluate its position, and the society released a proposal justifying a study of the potential utility of a satellite, entitled On the Utility of an Artificial Unmanned Earth Satellite. This report was one of the most persuasive documents that led to President Eisenhower’s decision to launch small scientific satellites as part of the research for the International Geophysical Year, 1957-58.
The pinnacle of the ARS participation in going into space, however, was the Space Flight Report to the Nation in 1961. This amazing conference, developed over a year under the direction of Dr. Jerry Grey of Princeton University, offered the opportunity to everyone, engineers and the general public, a glimpse of the opportunities of space. Two hundred and fifty papers in 50 sessions, along with plenary speakers and technical panels, took place over five days in at the New York City Coliseum. Speakers included the leading names in space flight, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Over 12,000 people attended.
This period was a time of great growth for the ARS, which went from 3500 members in 1956 to 20,500 six years later.
By the late 1950s, both the ARS and IAS covered similar topics and members. In considering various options, although the first reaction of most people was negative, this option made the most sense, and after years of figuring out programs and
procedures, the two organizations officially consolidated in 1963. Paul Johnston was chosen as the Executive Director of the new American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, with Jim Harford as deputy executive director; Johnston
had agreed to retire 18 months after the launch of the AIAA and Harford then took over. Other staff positions were also eliminated: the ARS had had 49 staff members, the IAS had 67, but by July 1964, the total was down to 87, not including
the specialists involved in the indexing operations, called the Technical Information Service.
The AIAA now had 47 technical committees (which has since grown to 66) and 66 local sections (now 64, including 2 in Australia).
At first, AIAA had only one broad technical publication, the AIAA Journal, followed by two specialized journals, the Journal of Aircraft and the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets. Others soon followed, including a Journal of Hydronautics and a Journal of Energy. (Today there are seven AIAA journals, including one on-line only, the Journal of Aerospace Computing, Information and Communication.) The magazine title was changes to Astronautics and Aeronautics in 1964, and later to Aerospace America in 1984. The AIAA Student Journal was launched in 1963. The AIAA continued the ARS’ Progress in Astronautics Book Series, expanding it to Progress in Astronautics and Aeronautics, and added the Education Series to publish textbooks.
Both societies had active awards programs that were easy to combine, and today AIAA gives over 80 awards in dozens of technical areas.
As for location, it was decided during the consolidation negotiations to sell the IAS building and move to new quarters in the Sperry Rand Building at 51st Street and the Avenue of the Americas. The two California office buildings were sold, San Diego in 1965 and Los Angeles in 1974.
By 1965, AIAA had 37,931 members, and 209 staff in offices in New York, Los Angeles and London. It had an active conference, publication, and honors and awards programs, and had begun to get more involved in public policy issues during the 1970s,
becoming a nationally respected voice in the aerospace community. This activity was part of the decision to move from New York to Washington, D.C., in 1988. The Technical Information Service remained in New York, but all other positions were
moved to the new Aerospace Center Building at 370 L’Enfant Promenade. Only 25 staff members chose to move to Washington, and Jim Harford also retired at this time after 35 years with the ARS and AIAA. The new Executive Director,
Cort Durocher, started on 1 October 1988.
The AIAA was now a mature professional society. Cort Durocher brought AIAA into the computer age with the purchase of 100 desktop computers for all staff, that could be networked, and under his management the Institute weathered years of fiscal ups and downs. AIAA conferences branched out from just specialist meetings to include governmental support, from NASA to the Air Force and others. The most notable achievement of AIAA during this time, however, was the creation of the AIAA Foundation in 1996 to administer AIAA-funded awards and scholarships. Today, the Foundation awards over $150,000 in scholarships, grants and honoraria per year.
To celebrate 100 years of powered flight, the AIAA Board allocated $3.7 million for the Evolution of Flight Campaign, the largest investment in a single program in the history of the Institute. Comprising over three years of activities, the program culminated in a week-long celebration coinciding with other centennial events in Dayton, Ohio in July of 2003.
Cort Durocher retired as AIAA's Executive Director in 2004. His successor, Robert Dickman, served from 2005 to 2012. Former NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus served from October 2012 to January 2018. Current AIAA Executive Director Dan Dumbacher inherited an organization in January 2018 that has never offered a broader range of programs supporting its members and the industry. For over 80 years, AIAA has taken great pride in its achievements and those of its members, and looks forward to continuing its support into the far future.