Prof. John Prussing retires after 38 years in Aerospace Engineering Department
As students presented Prof. John Prussing with his retirement gift - a life-size, cardboard cutout of him dressed in a dark suit (that he said he didn't recognize!) - they joked about how it could be used. They suggested it be positioned at the Department's doorway and , when guests entered, a recording of Prussing's voice be played with the greeting, "Welcome to Aerospace Engineering!"
Indeed, as the chief undergraduate advisor for AE students the past 30 years, Prussing's has been the friendly face many students have sought when coming into the Department. Those students have appreciated Prussing's wit and humor as well as his intellect and teaching abilities: 20 times he was named to An Incomplete List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Their Students, and this year made the fifth that he was chosen the Department's Teacher of the Year.
In April, the chief advising torch was passed on to the capable hands of AE Prof. Philippe Geubelle. Prussing will continue in the Department part-time, teaching courses such as Orbital Mechanics and Optimal Spacecraft Trajectories, both of which hedeveloped. "The optimal trajectory course was the first of its kind in the U.S.," he said. "I feel like a parent who wants to see it live long and prosper."
In fact, Prussing was the real pioneer of astronautical education in AE at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Having earned his bachelor's, master's and doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Prussing came to the Urbana campus in 1969. At that time, the Department had recently changed its name from Aeronautical Engineering to Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering. None of the faculty was doing astronautics work, and Prussing was hired to introduce it by his teaching and research. Said Prof. Victoria Coverstone, a protégé of Prussing who began her faculty career in AE in 1992, "When AAE 306 (Orbital Mechanics) was introduced, it was one of the very first university courses that combined classical celestial mechanics and engineering applications."
As Prussing was flying to Illinois to begin his career here, Apollo 11 made its legendary first manned moon landing. "The captain came on the intercom and announced 'The Eagle has landed,'" Prussing said. "It seemed to be an omen that I was headed for the right place."
Prussing's work gained notoriety and led to his book Orbital Mechanics, co-written with AE Prof. Bruce Conway and published in 1993. This popular book since then has been used as a text at the universities of Illinois, Purdue, Michigan, Penn State, Colorado, and Southern Cal, as well as in Canada and Australia, and is in nearly 300 libraries around the world.
Conway said his and Prussing's mutually beneficial working relationship extended in many ways beyond the book. "Of course we collaborated on the textbook," he said, "but we have also collaborated in research (with NASA) and we have had PhD students doing complementary work: One of his students would continue a promising line of research accomplished by one of my students or vice-versa."
Prussing has faith in Coverstone and Conway to continue in his footsteps and teach courses and do research in astrodynamics and spacecraft/satellite trajectories. He feels positive about the future of the Department. "(AE) has hired several excellent new faculty members, which is a sign of good things for the Department," he said.
He also looks hopefully to the United State's continued push for its space programs. "The shuttle program as we have known it is coming to an end, but there will be something else to replace it," Prussing maintains. "For example, if the Chinese or another country starts becoming active in human space exploration, we will be spurred on to do more." Although very expensive, private space exploration and travel will happen, especially if there is a commercial benefit, Prussing predicts. And to those who are skeptical, he recalls another time, back in the early 1960s, when disbelief was widespread. "When (President John F.) Kennedy kicked off the decade leading to the Apollo 11 landing, even aerospace people looked at each other and said, 'WHAT!'"