Suburban engineer who had key role in early NASA success, moon landing dies

  • Paul Chung

    Paul Chung

By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 10/9/2019 2:39 PM

A brilliant suburban engineer who helped lay the groundwork for the first manned space orbit and ultimately the moon landing has died.

Paul Chung lived with his family in Arlington Heights, where he was known as a talented painter, musician and active member of Orchard Evangelical Church.


However, few knew he also had a key role in advancing the space program.

Chung died Sept. 22, at the age of 89.

"He was very proud to be American and he wanted to do everything he could to help the country achieve its dreams," said his daughter, Tamara Michicich of Chicago.

Chung was born in Seoul, Korea and emigrated to America as an 18-year old. He was a newly graduated mechanical engineer from the University of Minnesota, when his research into heat and mass transfer attracted the interest of the recently formed space agency NASA.

He moved to California in 1958, the same year NASA launched Project Mercury and its quest to put a man in space. Some of Chung's work as a research scientist focused on heat transfer, non-equilibrium boundary layers, unsteady natural convection and flow dynamics for spacecraft and rockets, his daughter said.

His work would lead to the development of the thermal protection systems built into each rocket.

"From the engines breaking the earth's gravitational pull, through atmospheric friction, to the extreme cold of vacuum of space," Michicich said, "controlling heat was vital for the structural integrity of the spacecraft, and of course our brave astronauts."

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In 1966, Chung and his family moved to the Chicago area, where he accepted a position as a professor of mechanical engineering at the newly relocated University of Illinois at Chicago.

"He was dedicated to building up the university and its engineering department -- and creating more scientists," his daughter adds.

Chung eventually would serve as dean of the College of Engineering for 15 years, while continuing to consult with the Army, Navy and NASA on top secret projects and secured research grants.

During the years leading up to the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, Chung put together his "Simplified Statistical Theory of Turbulent Chemically Reacting Flows" for NASA. And leading up to the space shuttle program, he provided NASA with his "A Kinetic Theory Approach to Turbulent Combustion."

"Growing up, we never knew what he was working on, but I remember him taking business trips to California and Virginia," Michicich says. "We later realized he was flying into Moffett Federal Airfield in California's Silicon Valley and Langley Air Force Base in Virginia for highly confidential meetings."

Chung was preceded in death by his wife, Jean. Besides his daughter, he is survived by his son, Maurice (April) Chung, and six grandchildren.

Services have been held.

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