A heavyweight in micro-gravity research

Before boarding NASA’s KC-135 experimental aircraft, passengers pass a sign warning that insurance will not apply in the event of an accident. The gyrating flight is likely to cause nausea, vomiting and perhaps a desire to never board a plane again.

None of that fazed 81-year-old Cleveland resident Simon Ostrach. In 2004, the University of Rhode Island mechanical engineering alumnus became the world’s oldest person to ride the now retired “Vomit Comet.”

Over the span of 13 years, he rode the plane more than 100 times to conduct research in the microgravity environment generated by the plane’s 45-degree climbs and nosedives.

The parabolic flights of the KC-135 did not exist when Ostrach graduated what was then Rhode Island State College in 1944. The research Ostrach conducted in the plane was not even conceived – he would invent it. But 1944 and the years leading up to it positioned the Rhode Island native for an internationally renowned career studying the role of gravity on fluid dynamics.

Simon Ostrach at graduation
Simon Ostrach with his sisters at his URI graduation in 1944.

It was at the college that Ostrach found a passion for chemistry, physics, math and problem solving. It was a place that offered “education as good as you could get.” It was where he would forge connections and meet a “government man” who offered Ostrach a life-changing job.

The government man was from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner to NASA. He wanted Ostrach to help the Allies win World War II. So, Ostrach headed to the Aircraft Engines Research Laboratory in Cleveland to research military airplane engine technology. His expertise led to a national fellowship at Brown University, where he earned a doctorate in applied mathematics in 1950.

He returned to the aeronautics committee and 10 years later accepted a post as an engineering professor at Case Western Reserve University. He maintained close ties with the government and became the founding director of the National Center for Microgravity Research on Fluids and Combustion, a partnership between Case Western and NASA. He designed two major experiments that flew aboard the space shuttle in 1992 and 1995. He also devised an engineering research process, Research for Design (R4D), for the development of advanced closed-loop life systems and other self-sustaining technologies that humans will need to leave Earth’s orbit and explore space.

And he spent “eight glorious years” as the home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, conversing with academics, industry researchers and government officials.

Along the way, his research on surface tension driven flows in low-gravity environments single-handedly birthed a new field and exciting prospects in producing crystals for semiconductors and designing better microelectronic mechanical devices. Four universities, including URI, awarded him honorary doctorates for his work.

He also left his mark at the University by creating the Simon Ostrach Endowed Professorship held by mechanical engineering Professor Arun Shukla.

“I just feel very proud to be associated with his name,” Shukla says. “Over the years it’s helped me considerably in my research efforts and the University’s profile because he’s so well known.”

International fame in engineering wasn’t exactly what Ostrach’s parents had in mind. They encouraged him to enter medicine but, just before college enrollment, his high school guidance counselor suggested engineering.

“I thank my lucky stars three times every day that I didn’t become a physician,” Ostrach says with a laugh.

Ostrach says he and his fellow engineers help society just as much as doctors wielding stethoscopes.

“All the greatest problems that confront society are really engineering problems,” he says. “A lot of students today are motivated to help people, but I don’t know any other field in the world where you can help people more than engineering.”