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Our History

James Smith McDonnell
James Smith McDonnell

The McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences was formally established in 1975 through a munificent endowment by James Smith McDonnell (1899-1980) and the McDonnell Foundation, of eight professorships, several fellowships, and research grants. It was further strengthened through another major contribution in 1987 from the Danforth Foundation. Today, along with these professorships - four in the Physics Department and four in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences - the Center has grown into a consortium of more than one hundred members.

The inaugural director of the McDonnell Center was the late Robert M. Walker. He was the McDonnell Professor of Physics and served as Director of the McDonnell Center from its inception until 1999. Professor Walker worked on the frontiers of space research for more than four decades. He was best known for fundamental investigations of radiation effects in metals, the discovery of etched track detectors, and the application of these detectors to a variety of scientific and practical problems including the development of Nuclepore filters, the fission-track dating method, the discovery of extremely heavy cosmic rays, and the record of energetic particles in space as recorded in extraterrestrial materials. He has also conducted research in thermoluminescence and its application to art authentication and archaeological dating. His research efforts later in his career included the laboratory study of extraterrestrial dust particles collected in the upper atmosphere and the location and identification of preserved interstellar dust in primitive meteorites.

Robert M. Walker
Robert M. Walker
Roger J. Phillips
Roger J. Phillips,

Roger J. Phillips, Professor of Geophysics with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, succeeded Dr. Walker as Center Director in 1999 and served until 2007. Professor Phillips is now Professor Emeritus of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Institute Scientist with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. His research has included the geophysical development and interior structure of solid planets, starting with the interior structure of the Moon and including Venus and Mars; the integration of results from different fields as applied to the volatile and hydrological history of Mars; and most recently the subsurface structure of Mars.  

This generation's initial probing beyond our planet with unmanned spacecraft and human explorers is a major turning point in history, fundamentally changing the boundary conditions of human existence. We have taken only the first small steps; the exploration of space will continue as long as humanity exists. The first American in space and the first American in Earth orbit made their flights in spacecraft designed and built in St. Louis. The McDonnell Center is privileged to help carry on this tradition of space exploration. We look forward to the future with enthusiasm and immense curiosity.