China’s Moon landing site is a crater named for this “Martian” scientist

Theodore von Kármán, in the black coat, sketches out a plan on the wing of an airplane.
Theodore von Kármán, in the black coat, sketches out a plan on the wing of an airplane.
Image: NASA/JPL/CC-BY-SA-3.0
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After nearly a month’s travel, China’s spacecraft, Chang’e-4 is likely to land tomorrow (Jan. 3 local time) on the moon’s far side—something that no country has ever done before. It’s targeted landing spot is a crater named after Theodore von Kármán, a Hungarian-American aerodynamics pioneer who made significant contributions to America’s military and space advances in the 20th century.

Von Kármán was among five Hungarian-origin scientists dubbed the “visitors from Mars” by Fritz Houtermans, a physicist who knew them in the 1930s, because of their extraordinary impact on physics and chemistry in the 20th century. The story of the group is also the story of how immigrants helped the US dominate science at a crucial time, Chemistry Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann commented on a 2006 book about them, Martians of Science.

To honor von Kármán, a crater on the Moon has shared his name since 1970, and one on Mars is also named after him.

Chang’e-4 is in position to land on the Von Kármán crater, a 186-kilometer-wide (110 miles) region, located in an even larger impact crater called the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin that is 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) wide. If the landing is successful, scientists hope to carry out a range of experiments that could increase our knowledge of the universe’s early days, and of the sorts of events occurring in the solar system at the time the SPA basin formed. China’s far-side landing would be the second significant space advance of 2019 after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sent back pictures of Ultima Thule from the edge of the solar system, the farthest object ever explored.

Born in 1881 to a family in Budapest, Hungary, Von Kármán demonstrated talent for math and science early. Soon after he graduated from university with a degree in mechanical engineering (pdf, p.346) at the age of 21, Von Kármán went into the Austro-Hungarian army on compulsory military service for a year. His interest in aeronautics began in 1908 when he watched an airplane flight by a French aviation pioneer.

Von Kármán lived through two World Wars. During World War I, he built a prototype helicopter for the Austro-Hungarian army almost two decades before the world’s first practical helicopter took off in the United States. Between the wars, Von Kármán worked on developing wind tunnels, labs essential for building and testing aircraft components in controlled conditions.

After helping build a wind tunnel for the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), he was invited to be the first director of Caltech’s new Guggenheim Aeronautical Labs. In 1930, amid concerns about the rise of the Nazis in Europe, he accepted and moved to the US, becoming a citizen six years later.

Von Kármán’s research helped the US develop the world’s most advanced air force, with the preparation of a prophetic 1946 report on the state of aeronautics, “Where We Stand,” that compared army technology among different countries, and envisioned advances such as supersonic combat aircraft and ballistic missiles. He put together a team to develop an experimental rocket testing facility that would become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which became part of NASA in 1958, and helped found the first commercial rocket-engine manufacturer in the US.

He died in May 1963 at the age of 81 in Germany. Earlier that year, he had received the first-ever National Medal of Science in the US, awarded by then president John F. Kennedy. In Kennedy’s remarks, he said, “It’s hard to visualize what the world would be like today without aircraft or jet propulsion, or without the vision we have, just entering the realm of reality, of exploring space.”

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