James McDonnell with nose of airplane

Our History

Image of James S. McDonnell
James S. McDonnell
Images of McDonnell are courtesy of WashU Archives.

The McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences was formally established in 1975 through a munificent endowment by James S. McDonnell (1899-1980) and the McDonnell Foundation. 

It started with 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, Environmental, & Planetary Sciences - the Center has grown into a consortium of more than one hundred members.


Robert M. Walker

Director, 1975-1999

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 Walker in his lab

Roger J. Phillips

Director, 1999-2007

Roger J. Phillips succeeded Robert M. Walker as Center Director in 1999 and served until 2007.  Professor Phillips, who earned his PhD in 1968 from the University of California, Berkeley, worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and then took over as director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) in 1979. He later took a faculty position at Southern Methodist University, and in 1992 came to Washington University. In 2008, he retired from Washington University and moved to Colorado where he was affiliated with the Southwest Research Institute and continued his research. He died on November 19, 2020.

Professor Phillips was known for his work on the geophysical characteristics and interior structure of solid planets, beginning with the interior structure of the Moon and later expanding his research to Venus, Mars, and Mercury. He was involved in numerous exploration missions including the Apollo Lunar Sounder Experiment, Apollo 17; the Magellan mission to Venus; the Mars Global Surveyor mission; the Shallow Radar (SHARAD) experiment on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; the MESSENGER mission to Mercury; and the GRAIL mission to the Moon.


Comments from Director Phillips about the space sciences:

“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.”

Solar eclipse


WUSTL Shield, decorative

McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences Established

The McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences was founded in 1975 through a munificent endowment from Mr. James S. McDonnell of the McDonnell Aerospace Foundation, under the stewardship of William H. Danforth, Chancellor, and Robert M. Walker, McDonnell Professor of Physics, who served as its Director until 1999 and guided it to academic excellence.

Pioneers in Astrophysics Study Stardust

Robert Walker’s Laboratory of Space Physics pioneers a new field of laboratory astrophysics, based on the revolutionary SIMS ion probe, employed to analyze presolar grains (literally stardust) isolated from meteorites. (SIMS = Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry)

The Cosmic Ray Isotope Spectrometer is launched

The Cosmic Ray Isotope Spectrometer is launched aboard the NASA Advanced Composition Explorer satellite. Robert Binns, Martin Israel, and Joseph Klarmann are co-investigators along with scientists from other institutions. This instrument continues to make key measurements relevant to the origin of cosmic rays.

Roger J. Phillips became new Director of the Center

First Ever NanoSIMS

Our NanoSIMS 50, the first one produced by CAMECA, was designed specifically for the presolar grain research that we do. This new type of ion microprobe offers a lateral resolution of better than 100 nanometers, high sensitivity and multi-collection capability. In May 2018, we installed a Hyperion 201 RF plasma ion source that will allow us to measure secondary positive ions with a beam size of 50-100 nm.

VERITAS Constructed

In January 2007, Washington University professor Jim Buckley and a team of collaborators finalized the construction of the VERITAS array of four Cherenkov telescopes near Tucson (Arizona) leading to a string of discoveries in the years 2007-2020, including observations of gamma-rays from the galactic center, the Crab Pulsar, supernova remnants, the star burst galaxy M82, the radio galaxy M87 and blazars.

Ramanath Cowsik succeeded Phillips as Director of the Center

Brad Jolliff becomes fourth Director