Press Release

Innovator In Deep Space Exploration And Champion Of Women And Minorities In Engineering To Receive Honors From National Academy Of Engineering

By SpaceRef Editor
October 2, 2009
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WASHINGTON – During its 2009 annual meeting, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) will present two awards for extraordinary impacts on the engineering profession. The Academy’s Founders Award will be given to JOHN CASANI, who has made important contributions to deep space exploration, and SHEILA WIDNALL will receive the Arthur M. Bueche Award for leadership in expanding the opportunities for women and minorities in engineering. The awards will be presented at a ceremony on Sunday, Oct. 4.

Casani is an NAE member and special assistant to the director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He will receive the Founders Award for “distinguished innovation and leadership in robotic spacecraft engineering and project management that has enabled the first four decades of planetary and deep space exploration.” The award recognizes outstanding professional, educational, and personal achievement to the benefit of society, and it includes $2,500 and a gold medallion.

Casani’s career has spanned the entire history of planetary exploration at JPL, and he is considered by his peers to have defined planetary flight project management. Casani initially joined JPL in 1956 to work on inertial guidance systems, and then held various positions throughout the organization before becoming the assistant lab director for flight projects in 1989.

Casani led the design teams for both the Ranger and Mariner series of spacecraft and held a senior leadership position on the Mariner 4 project, which launched in 1964 and obtained the first close-range images of Mars. In 1975 Casani became project manager of the Voyager project, which launched twin spacecraft to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. These spacecraft continued to collect information 30 years after their launch and have made many intriguing discoveries, including a possible ocean of liquid water on one of Jupiter’s moons. Casani then became project manager on the Galileo spacecraft project, which sent back to Earth important images of Jupiter and its moons over the course of 14 years.

In the early 1990s Casani became project manager of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moon Titan, one of the most complex planetary missions ever designed. Later that decade, he assumed the role of chief engineer for all operations at JPL.

In addition to technical work, Casani has served as an ambassador for the deep space program, publishing many articles in both professional journals and the popular press, and has used frequent television interviews to excite the public about the nation’s space program.

Casani has received a number of citations from NASA, including the Outstanding Leadership Medal twice for his contributions as Voyager project manager, and later for leadership as spacecraft system manager of the 1973 Mariner 10 Mission to Venus and Mercury; and the Exceptional Service Medal for significant engineering achievements contributing to the Mariner 4 Mission to Mars.

Casani has been presented with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space System Award, and in 1980 he was installed as a fellow of that organization, and an honorary fellow earlier this year. He also received the National Space Club’s Astronautics Engineer Award for his “outstanding direction of the Voyager project.”

Sheila Widnall, a member of NAE and Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be presented the Arthur M. Bueche Award for “a remarkable academic career in fluid dynamics combined with the highest levels of public service, and for championing the role of women in engineering.” She will receive $2,500 and a gold medallion in recognition of her active involvement in determining U.S. science and technology policy, especially in relation to women and minorities, and contributing to the enhancement of the relationship between government and universities.

Widnall served as secretary of the Air Force from 1993-1997 and was the first woman to lead a branch of the U.S. military. During her time in this role, she co-chaired the Department of Defense Task Force on Discrimination and Sexual Harassment. The report of the military’s equal opportunity system written by this task force was the most in-depth investigation of this issue up to that time and led to far-reaching changes in military policy.

Widnall was the first MIT alumna appointed to the faculty in the School of Engineering in 1964 and became the first female faculty chair in 1979. In 1998 she was named “Institute Professor,” and is currently one of only 15 people at MIT to hold this distinction, the highest title that can be awarded to a faculty member at the school.

Widnall became the first woman to serve as president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2000. She also served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1988. It was in this role at AAAS that Widnall delivered her influential “Voices from the Pipeline” speech, a watershed moment in equity issues for women in science and engineering.

In addition to her efforts in expanding roles for women and minorities, Widnall has an impressive background in fluid mechanics, performing groundbreaking research on aerodynamics of high-speed ground transportation vehicles, helicopter noise, aircraft-wake studies, and turbulence. She was elected to the NAE in 1985 and served as the NAE vice president from 1998 to 2005.

Widnall received the Lawrence Sperry Achievement Award in 1972 from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; the Outstanding Achievement Award in 1975 from the Society of Women Engineers; the Washburn Award in 1987 from the Boston Museum of Science; and the NAE Distinguished Service Award in 1993. She was inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame in 1996; was named New Englander of the Year by the New England Council in 1996; and received the Spirit of St. Louis Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2001.

The National Academy of Engineering is a private, nonprofit institution that provides technology advice under a congressional charter. NAE also salutes leaders in engineering for their lifetime dedication to the field, and their commitment to advancing the society through great achievements. NAE dedicates more than $1 million annually to recognize these leaders, and to bring better understanding of engineering’s importance to society. In addition to the Founders and Bueche awards, NAE presents the Charles Stark Draper Prize, the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, and the Bernard M. Gordon Prize. For more information about these awards, please contact Deborah Young, NAE awards administrator, at 202-334-1266, or visit the NAE Web site at

SpaceRef staff editor.