Jerry C. South, Jr.
Aeronautical Engineering, Class of 1959, BS
Aerospace Engineering, Class of 1959, MS
Jerry South is one of the pioneers of the Apollo Space Program who helped insure President John F. Kennedy’s determined goal of landing on the moon by the end of the decade of the 1960s. He recalls the July 20, 1969 landing as if it was yesterday. “I watched the television set while on my back porch. I was looking intently for dust as the Lunar Excursion Module settled to the surface.”
Mr. South was concerned about dust because the lunar surface was an unknown factor to NASA engineers as they prepared for the moon launch. He was one of about three of the space program’s engineers who worked on this problem, predicting the consequences of a rocket exhaust impinging on a dusty lunar surface. He worked in the Theoretical Mechanics Division, which also developed the technique of lunar orbital rendezvous to put men on the moon and bring them back safely. “I always loved mathematics and the challenge of breaking new territory. I enjoyed the research so much I almost felt like I shouldn’t have been paid to do it,” the retired aerospace engineer says today.
He was not always as secure about his career choice. After selecting Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, he was confused by the number of disciplines. He selected civil first but then he saw a road crew installing a sewer line in Miami the summer before attending Virginia Tech. “I knew a CE had to be directing that job,” he smiles. “I switched immediately to electrical, but I thought the lab downstairs in Patton Hall seemed dingy. I liked to draw, so in my sophomore year, I changed to architectural engineering but there wasn’t enough mathematics to satisfy me. Then I read the catalog and learned that aeronautical engineering required a ‘high degree of analytical ability.’ That sounded challenging to me, so I switched.” Despite his early indecision, he still managed to earn his bachelor’s and his master’s degrees in aerospace engineering within five years of entering Virginia Tech.
By contrast, selecting NASA Langley to launch his career was an easy choice. “NASA was the holy grail for doing research in aerospace, and NASA Langley was the mother of all of the space centers. It spawned the centers in Cleveland, Ames, and Houston,” Mr. South recalls. And his job interview might have been one of the shortest on record. His future boss, Leonard Roberts, heard about the young graduate’s thesis work through Bob Truitt, the AE department head at the time, and essentially asked the young graduate in a hallway conversation if he would come work for him.
After four months at Langley, he was called to active duty as a lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps at the Ballistics Research Laboratories at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. He worked as a special projects officer concentrating on theoretical gas dynamics of high-speed flows. He rejoined Langley in 1961 when his main focus became the “very challenging theoretical research related to Project Apollo, including ablation of heat shields, trajectory analysis, and modeling of a rocket exhaust in a vacuum and its effect on a dusty lunar surface.”
During most of his career with NASA, Mr. South focused on the new field of computational fluid dynamics, the science of formulating methods suitable for solving the equations governing fluid flows and aerodynamics on a computer. The quest was for ever-increasing accuracy of the simulations, to perform predictions for situations that could not be carried out experimentally, such as planetary entry, as well as to serve as a complementary method to enhance experimental work to increase reliability of aeronautics and space vehicles.
During his career at NASA, he authored or co-authored over 50 research papers. He served as the head of the Theoretical Aerodynamics Branch, the Analytical Methods Branch, and the Computational Aerodynamics Branch. From 1984 to 1987, he served as Chief Scientist of NASA Langley Research Center. He received numerous awards, including the NASA Medal for Leadership, the NASA Medal for Exceptional Service, and he was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Jerry South is the son of a career naval officer and was born in San Diego, California. As a young child, he and his family lived in many “cities by the sea,” including Honolulu, but he did most of his growing up in Norfolk, Virginia. There, he attended Granby High School.
While at Virginia Tech, he was a member of the Corps of Cadets and served as its President in 1956-57. He simultaneously completed requirements for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in December of 1958 and headed for NASA. Both degrees were officially awarded in June 1959. He was a member of Tau Beta Pi, Omicron Delta Kappa, and Sigma Gamma Tau.
He and his wife Anda have four children. They live in Kingsmill in Williamsburg, Virginia. He retired in 1996, and spends a lot of time on the golf course studying the aerodynamics and trajectories of golf balls.
Class of: 1959
Year Inducted into Academy: 2003