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BY GLENN BUGOS AND WALTER VINCENT
AL EGGERS was one of the brightest lights in the Ames group that pioneered hypersonic aerodynamics in the 1950s and enabled the technology for all reentry vehicles. A brilliant theorist, Eggers also validated his ...
AL EGGERS was one of the brightest lights in the Ames group that pioneered hypersonic aerodynamics in the 1950s and enabled the technology for all reentry vehicles. A brilliant theorist, Eggers also validated his ideas by building significant experimental facilities. He led the teams that forged the theoretical and empirical basis for lifting-body reentry vehicles, presaging the Space Shuttle, and of hypersonic interference-lift aircraft. Later in his career he helped fashion research policy for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and led a major National Science Foundation effort in energy research.
Eggers was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on June 24, 1922, and earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Omaha in 1944. As a naval ensign, in October 1944 he was assigned to work as a research engineer for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at its Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, located adjacent to the Moffett Field Naval Air Station in California. His heart was set on service in the Pacific theater, but he soon warmed to the excitement of Ames. Later, working full time at Ames as a civilian, he continued his education at nearby Stanford University, earning a master’s degree in engineering in 1949 and his Ph.D. in 1956.
At Ames he joined the legendary high-speed research division led by H. Julian Allen. At Allen’s selection, his first responsible job was to design a hypersonic research facility. Using pressurized air from the nearby 12-foot pressurized tunnel, Eggers designed a 10- by 14-inch wind tunnel that operated between Mach 3 and Mach 6.3. Eggers designed a test section with variable geometry, a double throat, and boundary layer scoops for stable operation. It opened in 1950 and, though small, was a workhorse tunnel for years as Ames explored new terrain in hypersonic aerodynamics.
Eggers is perhaps best known for a revolutionary report he cowrote with Harvey Allen on the theory of blunt bodies for managing the heating challenges of reentry vehicles as they blazed into the earth’s atmosphere. The heating and volumetric efficiency of blunt bodies provided the enabling nose shape for ballistic missiles and formed the basis for all human spaceflight vehicles. Eggers’s early career balanced brilliant theoretical insight with the engineering of unique testing facilities. The combination of concept and proof made safe reentry possible. Eggers designed the Atmospheric Entry Simulator, opened in 1958, which ingeniously simulated the increasing density of the earth’s atmosphere encountered during reentry. The 3.5-foot hypersonic wind tunnel, which he also helped design, opened in 1961 and was the site of a quarter of all Space Shuttle wind tunnel testing.
Because of the broad significance of his work, Eggers won the Arthur S. Flemming Award in 1956 for excellence in federal service and the Sylvanus Reed Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1962 for achievements in aeronautical science and engineering. The U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce named him one of Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1957. From 1958 to 1972 he served on the Scientific Advisory Board of the U.S. Air Force.
Together with Clarence Syvertson, Eggers advanced new vehicle configurations and hypersonic flight trajectories. They developed the theory behind waveriders, which had favorable lift interactions with their own shock waves at hypersonic speeds. In tunnel tests they demonstrated a lift-over-drag ratio of 6, and the North American XB-70 Valkyrie demonstrated the concept of interference lift at full scale.
Eggers led his Ames colleagues into work on the NASA human spaceflight program. From 1959 to 1963 he led the Ames Vehicle Environment Division, which studied all facets of the aerothermodynamic envelope of spacecraft. Eggers also led NASA’s Manned Satellite Team, which helped plan the agency’s human spacecraft research. As NASA’s human spaceflight program expanded into the 1960s, Eggers pioneered the concept of the lifting body. This led to a decade-long flight test program which showed that wingless vehicles could reenter and land safely. It also gave NASA confidence that the Space Shuttle Orbiter could manage an unpowered landing.
Eggers was innovative, argumentative, and extremely well informed on all facets of the new field of hypersonic aerodynamics. His energy and enthusiasm were boundless. “He would enter a room of engineers dispassionately discussing a problem,” remembers his colleague at Ames, Jack Boyd, “and while bringing focus to the root problem raise the decibel level in the room. He led by doing, through logic, and a seriousness of purpose that could be intimidating.”
In the mid-1960s Eggers moved more forcefully into research policy. At Ames he served as assistant director for research and then as director of research and development analysis and planning from 1963 to 1964. He convinced NASA to locate its mission analysis division at Ames, which paved the way for the early Ames spacecraft projects. As an advocate for project engineering and physics, Eggers initiated a solar probe program that evolved into the very successful Pioneer series of solar probes. He moved to NASA headquarters and from 1964 to 1968 served as deputy associate administrator for advanced research and technology. From 1968 to 1971 he served as assistant administrator for policy during which time he also served as Hunsaker Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Eggers left NASA in 1971 and for six years served at the National Science Foundation as assistant director for research, leading a major new, and controversial, NSF program on Research Applied to National Needs, or RANN. The program funded large research projects on the scarcity of energy and environmental and material resources and was the first major NSF program to issue grants to small businesses, to emphasize engineering and applied research, and to fund social scientists to simultaneously study infrastructure problems. He earned a presidential distinguished service award in 1977. Moving back to the San Francisco Bay area, from 1977 to 1979 Eggers served as director of research laboratories at the Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratory.
Eggers finished his career by developing the technology base for renewable energy. From 1979 until his death, he served as president of RANN, Inc., an energy engineering consultancy doing research on solar and wind power. This company was separate from the research program he advanced at NSF, which had since been terminated, but was inspired by that agenda. He also served on the advisory board of the Solar Energy Research Institute and engineered new technologies for wind power. He devised a widely used active control system that altered the pitch of wind-turbine blades under varied winds, as well as a biplane design for twinned turbine blades.
Among his many awards, Eggers was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a fellow of the American Astronautical Society, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
He had a lifelong love of skiing and golf.
Al died on September 22, 2006, at the age of 84 and is survived by two sons, Philip and Alfred Eggers III; by three grandchildren, Andrew, Alexander, and Amanda; by his brother, Bob Eggers; and by his wife of 56 years, Elizabeth Ann.