November 18, 2004

Aircraft reached Mach 10 SIUC graduate played key role in scramjet success

by Bonnie Marx

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A jet that this week made aviation history by traveling faster than any aircraft ever has, owes its existence to the man who heads the team that engineered it -- Lowell Keel, a 1966 graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale.The National Aeronautics and Space Administration conducted the test flight of the unmanned X-43A aircraft. It uses an experimental scramjet engine designed to push the craft to nearly 10 times the speed of sound.

On Tuesday, the scramjet reached a speed of about 6,600 miles per hour, or about Mach 10.

"I'm very, very happy. Things couldn't have gone better," Keel said from his office in Tullahoma, Tenn., where he is vice president for X-vehicle programs at ATK GASL. The company bills itself as a world leader in the development of hypervelocity and air-breathing systems for next-generation space vehicles, missiles and projectiles to address critical Department of Defense and NASA requirements.

What distinguishes scramjets from conventional jet technology is that conventional craft use rotor blades to compress the air inside the engine. The scramjet uses something called an "air-breathing" engine that burns hydrogen fuel in a stream of fast-moving, compressed air created by the forward motion of the aircraft.

The team Keel headed, at its peak, involved about 80 people. Keel said the $75 million project involved the creation of three prototype aircraft for NASA.

Although the first test flight didn't work out, the second test flight last March established a record -- Mach 7 -- for speed.

"The March flight is in the Guinness Book of World Records," Keel said, "but Tuesday's flight will soon supercede it."

Keel, a native of Carrier Mills, a village of about 2,000 residents in Saline County, came to SIUC as a typical student at the time -- a first-generation college student. The engineering building was under construction. He finished his degree work in 1965 but didn't officially graduate until spring of 1966.

A member of SIUC's Air Force ROTC detachment, he earned his commission in December 1965 and went on to an Air Force career as an engineer developing advanced aircraft systems and procuring advanced weapons systems.

After retiring from the air force 14 years ago, he joined forces with what was then MicroCraft, a small, family-owned business with a 40-year history. The mergers that led to the company becoming ATK GASL were partially the result of the relationship built during the Hyper-X program, he said.

"It's a very successful team," Keel said. "Our company generally builds articles and pieces of equipment that don't get front page news coverage. Hopefully, it will be the first of many."

Keel and his team had high hopes of moving forward with the next generation of the aircraft, the X-43C. But NASA pulled its funding for what it called higher priority projects.

Nonetheless, Keel remains optimistic. He believes there is "political and management support in NASA to get the program restarted," he said. "I believe in the next few years we'll have a similar project going."

Experts say that Tuesday's flight will go down in the history books with such pioneers as Orville and Wilbur Wright.

One of the parallels to the Wrights' achievement is that "they struggled a fair amount to get the technology accepted and had a few lean years after their success before repeating it," Keel said.

Keel lives in Tullahoma with his wife, Mary, a 1964 SIUC graduate and native of Madison, Ill. The Keels met at SIUC. They have four grown children, one of whom is an SIUC graduate as well.

Keel also serves as the College of Engineering representative on the board of directors of the SIU Alumni Association.