The California University of Technology Distinguished Alumni Award is the highest honor the institute bestows upon a graduate. It is given to recognize a particular achievement that holds significant value and/or a career of noteworthy accomplishment. This award also celebrates the diversity of Caltech’s alumni and how the individual’s work impacts science and society.
In Gary Flandro’s case, he is receiving the award for his contributions to the design and engineering of muli-outer-planet missions, including the Grand Tour. Flandro discovered the alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune while studying techniques for exploring the outer planets in 1964 while at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. He found this was possible by gravitational force of the planets sling-shotting a single spacecraft to visit each planet, collecting data, photos, and information that has never been discovered before.
The spacecraft’s were named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 with the intent of visiting Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto (which was still considered a planet at the time). Voyager 2 was launched in 1979 to visit Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. The Voyagers completed this tour and are still in space to this day with over 40 years of exploration.
Flandro earned his Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Utah in 1957, his Master’s in Aeronautics from Caltech in 1960 and his Ph.D. from Caltech in 1967. He has written or co-written 95 conference papers, has co-authored 54 refereed papers, written four books and two chapters. He has also co-authored several textbooks including “Combustion Instability in Solid Propellant Rockets” with Edward W. Price of Georgia Tech, which is used in his short courses at the University of Tennessee Space Institute today.
Flandro’s work has supported decades of space flight that led to successful missions to the outer planets. The ideas from his research have had a major impact on subsequent solar system exploration including; Galileo – the tour of Jupiter and Cassini – the tour of Saturn; both using the gravity assist method. The most recent was the New Horizons mission launch that used his basis for gravity assist to reach Pluto and it did in 2015.