Alumni Profile: Donald Rapp ChE’55

Donald Rapp ChE’55

Cooper Union provided me with a free, first-class education as a starting point to 62-year career (and
still going at age 87). I built upon that foundation with graduate work in chemistry, physics and
engineering at Princeton, Caltech and finally a Ph. D. at Berkeley in 1960. Over the next six decades, I
never could decide whether I was a chemist, a physicist, or an engineer.

I married a Cooper Union art graduate in 1956 and we stayed together 53 years until she died of cancer.
Cooper Union was the key influence in both our lives at a pivotal time when inspiration and
achievement were instilled into our lives because Cooper Union demanded that.

In the first phase of my career, my research included fundamental laboratory measurements on
chemical reactions involving charged atoms and molecules, and most of that data is still widely quoted
today. I also developed theoretical models for collisions between atoms and molecules that utilized
classical mechanics for particle trajectories and quantum mechanics for modeling the quantum
transitions induced by atomic and molecular collisions. This widely used approach is known as the
“semi-classical” method. I also wrote two physics textbooks that I used while teaching these courses.

In the second phase of my career, I was the chief technologist for the Mechanical and Chemical Division
of the Jet Propulsion laboratory (JPL), where I oversaw more than 100 Ph.D.s doing research on space related
technologies. I studied architectures and transportation systems for space missions, with
particular emphasis on missions to the Moon or Mars. I became a leader in the field of utilization of
planetary resources. I was proposal manager on two major winning JPL space exploration proposals
(Genesis and Deep Impact) that totaled over $500 million. After that, my written proposals were used
as a generic framework for writing space mission proposals at JPL.

After retirement from JPL in 2002, I finally found time to pursue topics that had fascinated me all those
years: climate change, ice ages, human missions to the Moon or Mars, utilization of planetary
resources, and tangentially: financial bubbles. I wrote and published seven books, several of which are
now in their third edition.

Around 2014, NASA announced a new opportunity for a project to land on Mars and convert Martian
CO2 to O2. As a JPL retiree, I teamed up with JPL and M.I.T to write a winning proposal to NASA. This
funded project became known as Mars OXygen In-Situ Experiment (MOXIE) and I have been heavily
involved in it all the years that followed. MOXIE is presently operating on Mars, and it is doing well.

Donald Rapp is the 2022 Recipient of the CUAA Gano Dunn Award. He will be inducted into the Cooper Union Hall of Fame on February 10, 2022.