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  • (l-r) Ravi Ravichandran, Foster Stanback, Coco Stanback, and Ares Rosakis
    Credit: EAS Communications Office
  • Foster and Coco Stanback with GALCIT graduate students Cong Wang (left) and Nathan Martin (background)
    Credit: EAS Communications Office, 2015
01/27/2015 11:47:34

The Sky Is the Limit: $7.8 Million Gift to Caltech Will Support Aerospace Innovation

Through three gifts to Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS), investor and philanthropist Foster Stanback and his wife, Coco, aim to help the Institute advance innovation in space exploration, with the attendant benefits of an educated workforce, skilled jobs, and spinoff technologies.

The suite of gifts totals $7.8 million: $3 million to create an endowment for space innovation, $3 million for a fund that will support four graduate student fellowships, and $1.8 million to launch a new outreach program.

According to Foster Stanback, these contributions represent "the equivalent of what investing in big sailing ships was many years ago." He explains: "When Portugal made those investments and Vasco de Gama rounded the coast of Africa with that first load of pepper from India, the world changed.

"There are opportunities waiting out there that are going to advance civilization. We've got to do the hard work, the science, in order to make that possible. It's not going to be as easy as building ships out of wood, but Caltech has the people who can do this, working with nanotechnology and advanced materials science, new propulsion systems, atomic energy, and more."

Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and a professor of physics, anticipates that the impact of the Stanbacks' gifts will be substantial.

"Foster and Coco's insightful philanthropy is empowering Caltech to make world-changing discoveries," he says, noting that the Stanbacks have advanced an array of Institute priorities with more than $24 million in support over the past decade. "Through this new gift to EAS, they are positioning the Institute to attract the most outstanding scholars and to educate future generations of leaders, on campus and off. We are deeply grateful for their remarkable vision."

Stanback was inspired to make the gifts after participating in the inaugural meeting of Caltech's Space Innovation Council in April 2014. The group, chaired by filmmaker James Cameron and Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor of electrical engineering and planetary science at Caltech, aims to advance space science and promote technological creativity.

Stanback established the space innovation fund to help novel technical projects get off the ground. One example: electrically powered aircraft that can be recharged in flight by energy beamed from space. "This sounds like not just science fiction, but crazy science fiction," Stanback says, "but they're working on it!"

Says Ares Rosakis, holder of the Otis Booth Leadership Chair in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science and Caltech's Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering: "The Stanback gifts contribute vitally to the EAS strategy of attracting the best faculty and students, then giving them the resources, acknowledgement, and support to shine. For space engineering, these gifts will allow us to perpetually fund bold seed projects—many of which will lead to spectacular inventions and technologies."

The innovation fund will give EAS additional resources to do just that, and the new fellowships will strengthen the division's ability to offer financial assistance to top graduate students.

"Fellowships are dear to my heart," says Ravi Ravichandran, the John E. Goode, Jr., Professor of Aerospace and a professor of mechanical engineering. Ravichandran directs the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories at Caltech (GALCIT), which will be the primary program to benefit from the new fellowships.

"We want to produce critical thinkers who can transform academia and industry, and define future directions in aerospace," Ravichandran adds. "For the nation to continue to provide leadership in this area, we need to train extraordinary people. The new fellowships will help us attract the best people in the world."

The outreach program will engage these extraordinary young scientists in training the next-generation workforce. Caltech will collaborate with a network of community colleges to identify students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have high technical aptitude and interest. These young people will team up with GALCIT students who will mentor them and teach them topics in aerospace engineering. Stanback envisions this program inspiring students from community colleges to pursue education and careers in aerospace.

For his part, Ravichandran is excited to offer GALCIT students systematic opportunities for outreach. "This will make them better able to teach, to convey the excitement of aerospace, and to work in teams," he says.

Teamwork is already a strength for Caltech, in Stanback's view. "Caltech has something unique—I think there's a community and a culture that leads to interaction and sharing of ideas. The students have an idea and they share it with the professor, and oftentimes the professor says, 'Well, let's do it.' Then the administration says, 'Well, let's figure out how to support this.' Everyone is working together to support the mission."

 "Caltech is a place where the sky is the limit," Ravichandran explains. "When we recruit students, what I tell them is that this is the place where you can imagine anything and you can do anything. Coco and Foster Stanback's transformative gifts will certainly help us in achieving this."

Written by Stacey Hong and Ann Motrunich