Boiler Up! How Purdue University Learned to Shoot for the Moon

Author Michael G. Smith answered a few questions about his new book (shown recently on regional tv affiliate WLFI), The Rocket Lab: Maurice Zucrow, Purdue University, and America’s Race to Space. This is a volume Purdue fans and space enthusiasts are not going to want to miss.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

This is really a history of Purdue during its remarkable years of growth between the 1920s and 1960s, centered on a professional biography of Maurice Zucrow, its first PhD in 1928 and its first professor of jet propulsion in 1946.  I also draw in his relationships with leading administrators at Purdue, people liked Fred Hovde and R.B. Stewart; and their roles in the research and development advances of the Second World War and Cold War.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

The goal is to restore both Purdue and Zucrow, and his colleagues and students, as pioneers in higher education and engineering practice.  I tell the background story, still undiscovered and underappreciated.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

There are lots of firsts here. The book covers the rise of Purdue as the country’s largest engineering university by the 1950s, including its role in the making of alumni astronauts.  Dr. Zucrow and his teams advanced jet propulsion and rocketry for the military services (including the mostly forgotten US Navy’s Project Squid) and for NASA.  Zucrow and his people helped shape American successes in aeronautics and astronautics.

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

No shocks.  Two surprises.  The book tells the story how Dr. Zucrow’s called for a NASA style agency for missiles and rockets already in 1952, five years before Sputnik.  History would have turned out very differently if the military and government had listened.  The other surprise is related to this.  Zucrow and his colleagues, though they respected Wernher von Braun and his German engineers, did not include them in this fully American initiative, and in fact frequently shunned and criticized them, if usually in private.

Q: The “project system” used by Professor Zucrow and his peers originated with the US Department of Agriculture. Did Purdue’s long-standing history as a land-grant university teaching agriculture influence or impact the development and success of its aeronautics/astronautics programs? Why or not? How?

Without a doubt, Purdue’s land grant identity mattered.  Its engineers adapted the project system in the 1920s to first mechanize farm infrastructures, and second improve industrial technologies.  Purdue professors, backed by the pioneering Purdue Research Foundation, thereby had a crucial head start as the U.S. government expanded the project system for aerospace after 1941.

Q: Do you think Professor Zucrow’s background gave him a different perspective or different goals than the majority that came from backgrounds in physics? Why or why not?

Zucrow was, from start to finish, a mechanical engineer.  This was a recognition of the power and prestige of this department at Purdue.  In his graduate work here as a student, and later as a professor, Zucrow always promoted a holistic approach, educating engineers to design and build all kinds of power pants, for energy, transportation, aviation, and spaceflight, including the new fields of applied physics and nuclear engineering.  He taught people to become whole engineers, to find their specialties, but to think in creative and visionary ways.

Q: Are there things Professor Zucrow and his peers developed or achieved that the general public should be more aware of?  

Along with all sorts of technical advances in jet and rocket propulsion, Zucrow and his teams contributed to the design successes of a variety of premier engines: including for the Nike, Corporal, and Atlas missiles; and for the Saturn V and Space Shuttle launch systems.  It’s quite a long list of overall successes. 

Q: How did Professor Zucrow inspire Neil Armstrong’s decision to attend Purdue?

It was Zucrow’s course and textbook, the first of their kind: Principles of Jet Propulsion and Gas Turbines.  There was nothing like these anywhere in the world.  Neil Armstrong understood this.  He made the right choice about where to go for college. 

You can get 30% off The Rocket Lab: Maurice Zucrow, Purdue University, and America’s Race to Space.and any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.