Rice mourns aerospace pioneer Angelo Miele

Rice mourns aerospace pioneer Angelo Miele

By Patrick Kurp
Special to the Rice News

Angelo Miele, the Foyt Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Sciences, whose work in optimization and control proved critical to the aerospace industry, died March 19 at the age of 93.

In 2007, Miele attended a workshop in Russia dedicated to him on his 85th birthday. At the time, Miele said in an interview, “I became emeritus professor in 1993, but I still teach classes and I’m still working on algorithms to solve optimal control problems of interest in atmospheric flight and space flight.”

Angelo Miele

Angelo Miele

Miele’s research, which began before the early days of space exploration, focused on various aspects of flight mechanics, astrodynamics, applied aerodynamics, optimization theory and numerical methods.

“He was an outstanding scientist and successful educator and mentor in the areas of flight mechanics, astrodynamics, applied aerodynamics and optimization theory,” said Yildiz Bayazitoglu, the Harry S. Cameron Professor of Mechanical Engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering. “I treasured his fatherly advice, which had a positive impact on my professional life. I was fortunate to work with such a gentleman, and I’m saddened to lose a trusted friend.”

Miele was born Aug. 21, 1922, in Formia, Italy, and his formal education was completed in that country, where he received doctoral degrees in civil engineering (1944) and aeronautical engineering (1946). He became a naturalized American citizen in 1985.

He emigrated to Argentina in 1947, where he worked in aircraft design at Fabrica Militar de Aviones in Cordoba and later as a lecturer at the School of Military Aviation, the School of Aerospace Engineering of the Argentinian Air Force and the University of Cordoba.

Miele arrived in the United States in 1952 and taught for three years at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. He joined the faculty at Purdue University in 1955, worked on optimal trajectories for aerospace vehicles and became a full professor in 1958. His work included optimal thrust programs for rocket-powered aircraft, optimal cruise of turbojet-powered aircraft and optimal cruise of a hypervelocity glider. While at Purdue, he published a much-cited paper proposing a general variational theory of flight paths of missiles, satellite carriers and other spacecraft.

In 1959, Miele joined the Boeing Scientific Research Laboratories as director of astrodynamics and flight mechanics. “It was my good fortune to one day get a call from Walter Hiltner, the manager of Boeing’s moon program, asking me to work on lunar trajectories,” Miele said in 2010. His research at Boeing led to the theorem of image trajectories in Earth-moon space, among his most influential contributions to aerospace studies.

“In a nutshell, the theorem establishes a relation of symmetry between outgoing trajectories and returning trajectories,” Miele said. “It is interesting to note that a subclass of the class of image trajectories is that of symmetric free-return trajectories. These are the image trajectories designed to cross the Earth-moon axis orthogonally, at 90 degrees.” Symmetric free-return trajectories were used by NASA in the missions from Apollo 1 to Apollo 11.

While at Boeing, Miele conducted research that led to the publication of the textbook Flight Mechanics (1962). He also became interested in optimal aerodynamic shapes in the supersonic, hypersonic and free-molecular flow regimes.

Angelo Miele

Angelo Miele

Miele joined Rice’s faculty in 1964. The following year he published the textbook Theory of Optimum Aerodynamic Shapes. In 1967, Miele founded the Journal of Optimization Theory and Applications, where he remained editor-in-chief until 2009.

In 1994, Miele was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his contributions to flight mechanics and control. He was an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a fellow of the American Astronautical Society and a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the International Academy of Astronautics. Miele also received an honorary doctorate of science from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Miele, who was also professor emeritus in computational and applied mathematics at Rice, was principal investigator for more than 100 grants, and author or co-author of some 250 journal articles and 400 technical reports and contributions to scientific meetings. He was adviser to 85 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in aero-astronautics. His book Flight Mechanics, published in 1962 and translated into Russian in 1965, influenced a generation of aerospace engineers.

“Angelo was a dedicated educator with charismatic humor, crystal-clear opinions on many components of academic quality and an unequivocal commitment to seminal scholarship,” said Pol Spanos, the Lewis B. Ryon Professor of Mechanical Engineering and of civil and environmental engineering.

From 1967 to 1983, Miele’s research focused on numerical methods, first for optimal control problems and then for mathematical programming problems. He pioneered the “method of particular solutions” for solving linear two-point and multipoint boundary-value problems, the “sequential gradient restoration algorithm” for solving optimal control problems and the “parallel method of particular solutions.”

After 15 years of algorithm development, Miele began devoting more time to engineering applications. From 1983 to 1993, his research focused on wave identification, optimal aero-assisted orbital plane change maneuvers, aero-assisted flight experiments, optimal trajectories, flying in wind shear and wind identification and detection.

After retirement, Miele maintained his teaching and research schedule, working in such areas as minimum fuel transfer of a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit to low-lunar and Martian orbit and return, conceptual design of next-generation spacecraft, optimal trajectories for super-maneuvering fighter-jet aircraft, optimization of ship maneuvers, collision-avoidance problems for ships and aircraft, and spacecraft rendezvous problems.

Miele’s research was sponsored by such sources as the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Air Line Pilots Association, Boeing and the Exxon Production Research Company.

“My good fortune has been to be in the right place at the right time, solving the right kind of engineering problems,” Miele said in 2010. “It is a long story, the story of the progress that we have made in aerospace. What we have learned is that everything is possible, albeit with some limitations imposed on us at any given time from the available technology.”

In 2010, the mayor of Miele’s native city presented him with the Cicerone Citta’ di Formia Prize (Cicero City of Formia Prize).

“I’ve had many international acknowledgements,” Miele said at the time, “but this one, which comes from the town where I was born, is especially important for me.”

–Patrick Kurp is a science writer in the George R. Brown School of Engineering

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