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Seymour Bogdonoff, high-speed aerodynamics pioneer, dies

Seymour Bogdonoff, a longtime Princeton engineering professor whose research and leadership in high-speed aerodynamics played a major role in the U.S. space program, died Jan. 10, his 84th birthday.

Bogdonoff joined the Princeton faculty in 1948 as an assistant professor and retired in 1989 as the Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Aeronautical Engineering. During those 41 years, he led a critical phase of development for the University's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and established an international reputation in his field.

Fascinated with problems concerning how air flows past objects at great speeds, Bogdonoff created experiments and test equipment that paved the way for supersonic (faster than the speed of sound) and hypersonic (many times the speed of sound) flight. These advances were important to the U.S. space program, particularly in solving problems concerning the re-entry of vehicles into the atmosphere.

From 1953 to 1989, Bogdonoff helped build and led the Gas Dynamics Lab on Princeton's Forrestal Campus. That facility, with its innovative wind tunnel designs and other equipment, became a worldwide center for high-speed aerodynamics research. "He trained many of the engineers and scientists who designed and built supersonic aircraft and who made the moon mission possible," said Alexander Smits, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who was recruited to Princeton by Bogdonoff.

"He was known as a skilled and demanding teacher, and his students went on to dominate all aspects of gas dynamics," Smits added.

Bogdonoff, referred to by colleagues simply as "Boggy," was known for his passionate interest in many subjects and his strongly held beliefs. "He was a force of nature," said Smits.

"He could be a very tough person, but also was very generous and very kind," Smits added. "He had strong ideas about how things ought to be done, and he didn't mind expressing them. But he never held a grudge."

In the late 1960s, as Princeton recruited more students who had exceptional talents but did not come from high schools with the strongest academic programs, Bogdonoff led the creation of a summer program to give incoming students extra training in mathematics. "Boggy had no fear," said Spencer Reynolds, former associate dean of admissions. "He said, 'I'll go talk to the deans and demand that we have a program like this. We can give these kids a fighting chance.'"

Although an experimentalist who specialized in hands-on engineering, Bogdonoff recognized the growing importance of computational science and played a key role in strengthening the University's Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics.

"He was always the person who got things done," said Sau-Hai "Harvey" Lam, the Edwin Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Emeritus. "He didn't need someone to tell him; he just made sure it happened. He was a leader."

Bogdonoff did not slow down in retirement, remaining active in campus and community affairs. Among many projects, he championed the creation of a book commemorating the legacy of James Forrestal, for whom the Forrestal campus is named. In 1999, he started a driving school for the elderly. Bogdonoff, who drove a Porsche sports car and enjoyed testing his skills on race tracks, said at the time that many elderly people could drive safely and lead more independent lives with the help of a little extra training.

Bogdonoff received his BSE degree in aeronautical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1942 and worked for four years in Langley, Va., at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA. He came to Princeton in 1946 with his supervisor at Langley, Lester Lees, who was recruited to the newly created aeronautical engineering department at Princeton. Bogdonoff earned his master's degree in the department in 1948 and was appointed as assistant professor the same year.

Bogdonoff was named to the Patterson professorship in 1964 and became department chair in 1974, serving in that position for nine years. He consulted widely in industry and government, advising the National Science Foundation, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Defense Science Board and NASA. He served on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board and was a key adviser to NATO through his work on the Advisory Group for Aerodynamics Research and Development. In recognition of this work, he was made a member of the French National Academy of Air and Space.

He is survived by his wife, Harriet, three children -- Sondra Johnston of Portland, Maine, Zelda Bogdonoff of Bethlehem, Pa., and Alan Bogdonoff of New London, Conn. -- and five grandchildren.

The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be sent to the Seymour M. Bogdonoff Student Scholarship Fund, in care of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, 15 Princess Road, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648.

A funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12, at the Jewish Center of Princeton, 435 Nassau St.

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