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Wilbur C. Nelson

Wilbur Nelson


Wilbur Nelson was born May 9, 1913 in Flint, Michigan. He received a Bachelors of Science in Engineering degree in 1935 and a Masters in Science and Engineering degree in 1937 from the University of Michigan. His career spanned over 43 years, during which his genius and vision influenced development from the aeronautical to Astronautical periods of American history. In 1936 he worked as an engineer at Lockheed Corporation in California. He served on the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington from 1937 to 1939. Wilbur was a project engineer for Engineering at Iowa State College from 1940 to 1942 and was department head and professor from 1942 until 1946. He also served at John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab as a supervisor in 1945.

Wilbur returned to the University of Michigan in 1946 as a Professor of Aeronautical Engineering. He became Chairman of the Aerospace Engineering Department in 1953, a position he held until 1968. During this time, he was involved in a myriad of aeronautical and Astronautical activities, most notably a member of the NATO Science Advisor Group for Aeronautical Research and Development from 1953 to 1969.

Six Apollo astronauts were graduates of Professor Nelson's department. In 1965, the first Michigan space crew, space craft Commander Jim McDivitt and Edwin White, the first space walker, returned to the U of M campus. It was also an all-Michigan crew to go to the moon in Apollo 15 and later Jack Lousma, who carried the Michigan banner in the Skylab and Shuttle missions.

Nelson's work in guided missiles and astronautics began in World War II. He was in charge of the first U.S. anti-missile defense program and advised major aircraft companies on new design developments. He received a patent for wingtip vortex spill design used on all aircraft today. A prolific writer, Nelson contributed hundreds of articles to science journals over the span of his career. Professor Nelson passed away on May 10, 1987 at the age of 74.

Wilbur Nelson, Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan Department of Aerospace Engineering, was enshrined into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame on October 10, 1998 for his 40 years of dedicated work in aeronautical and aerospace engineering.

Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program