Theodore von Karman was born in Hungary where he studied and taught advanced math and physics. He moved to the United States in 1930 to head the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory. In the early 1940’s, Von Karman endorsed the idea of creating a long range missile program. He became the first director of the resultant Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in 1944. Five years later, this project resulted in the launch of a high altitude rocket from New Mexico. It reached a height of 244 miles, becoming the first US rocket to reach what was referred to as “extraterrestrial space.” In late 1957, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in collaboration with the United States Army developed and built the Explorer I satellite, America’s response to Sputnik. Within a year of the successful launch of Explorer I, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory became a part of the newly create National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
In 1963, President Kennedy awarded von Karman the first National Medal of Science. During the ceremony Kennedy remarked, “It is hard to visualize what the world would be like without aircraft and jet propulsion, or without the vision we have, just entering the realm of reality, of exploring space. I am especially glad to present this first National Medal of Science to one of the pioneers who has helped to make all this new and exciting age possible.” Less than three months after receiving the award, Theodore von Karman died at the age of 81.
In 1965, Shirley Thomas, a professor at the University of Southern California, began a long fight to have von Karman honored on a United States postage stamp. She wrote letters to postmaster generals, and in 1983 she organized the Committee for the Theodore von Karman Postage Stamp. Members of this committee included Charles Yeager and astronauts Buzz Aldrin and L. Gordon Cooper. Her quest was complicated by the fact that “outside of the scientific world, von Karman is not a magical name…But in the scientific world, he was a giant.” Eventually, in 1991, Postmaster General Anthony Frank honored Thomas’s request, and the Postal Service issued a stamp honoring von Karman in 1992.
The stamp features the scientist next to a V-2 rocket. The stamp’s designer, Chris Calle, thought von Karman had a “great face…His face seemed to me to be characteristic of a scientist… it just had the look of someone who was deeply committed to what he’s doing…”