Department Pioneers: Dr. Paul Wilbur

ME Emeritus Professor, Dr. Paul Wilbur, taught, researched, and mentored in CSU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering from 1968-2010. It’s been eight years since Dr. Wilbur retired, but his legacy continues to inspire colleagues and students.

“His love was teaching and research. His day would start with getting to work by 6:30 or 7:00am to get his classes organized and firm in his mind just what he wanted to present for the day,” recalled Dr. Paul Wilbur’s wife, Mrs. Twyla Wilbur. “He wanted his students to really stretch their minds and learn something.”

This memory sums up the type of individual Dr. Wilbur is, and how he is remembered by his colleagues. His vibrant characteristics and strong worth ethic contributed to his long-lasting and established career at CSU. For four decades, Dr. Wilbur dedicated himself to the Department; he was passionate about teaching, committed to the advancement of ion propulsion research, meticulous in the classroom and lab, and dependable as a peer, professor, and mentor. “Along with exceling in every aspect of his career, Dr. Wilbur has a positive attitude that is contagious. He had a way of teaching that captivated students and peers alike, and has a kind and generous heart that humbles everyone he meets,” remembered Dr. John Williams, a former Ph.D. student and later, a CSU ME colleague of Dr. Wilbur’s.

“When someone dedicates 42 years of their career to research and to a University, they become a pioneer. They mold and advance the field, the Department, and its people. Dr. Wilbur was one of those unique individuals who left a lasting impression in more ways than one. His work has changed forever the world’s approach to space propulsion, and how we teach thermodynamics here at CSU,” said Department Head, Dr. Susan James.

Education & Career
Dr. Wilbur earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Utah in 1960, and shortly thereafter, obtained a position at U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Reactor Development as a Nuclear Power Engineer. In 1964, he decided to further pursue his education, and was accepted into Princeton University’s Ph.D. program in Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences.

In 1968, following his graduation from Princeton, Dr. Wilbur joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering at CSU as an assistant professor. He spent the next 42 years, until his retirement in 2010, graduating hundreds of students, earning numerous awards and grants to advance research in his field, and contributing to several CSU committees and external aerospace societies. “Paul always took a personal interest in his students’ advancement, dedicated to teaching them as much as he could in the best way possible. He was thorough in his research and dedicated to making sure that his graduate students learned as much as possible about ion propulsion, teaching them to defend their research with conviction,” Mrs. Wilbur said.

A former undergraduate student recalled, “Dr. Wilbur is by far the best professor I have ever had. I took an 8:00am class with him and I would show up at 7:55 and the board would already be full. I never worked so hard and enjoyed doing it.”

“At graduation ceremonies, students wouldn’t just shake Dr. Wilbur’s hand, they would hug him. It really showed the level of appreciation and admiration his students had for him. To this day, I’ve never seen anything like it,” remembered Dr. Williams.

Dr. Paul Wilbur was awarded the Ernst Stuhlinger Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Electric Propulsion at the 30th International Electric Propulsion Conference held in Florence, Italy, September 2007.

Honors & Awards
• 1989, Engineering Dean’s Council Award, CSU Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Fort Collins, Colorado
• 1986, Abell Faculty Research and Graduate Program Support Award, CSU College of Engineering, Fort Collins, Colorado
• 1985, Oliver P. Pennock Award for Distinguished Service, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
• 1982, Halliburton Award for Excellence in Teaching, CSU College of Engineering, Fort Collins, Colorado
• 1964-1968, NSA Traineeship and NSF Graduate Fellowship, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
• 1960, Outstanding Graduating Engineer, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah
• 2007, The Ernst Stuhlinger Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Electric Propulsion
• 2008, The Wyld Propulsion Award, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
• Purple Shaft Award – This is an award given by students to faculty they were most fond of; Dr. Wilbur won twice.

Extracurricular Involvement
At CSU, Dr. Wilbur was heavily involved at university-level, college level, and department level committees:

• University Committees
o Faculty Council, Member, 1970, 1994
o Scholastic Standards Committee, Member, 1969
o Space Grant Program, Administrator
o AIAA, Student Section Advisor
• College Committees
o College of Engineering Evaluation Committee, Member
• Department Committees
o ME Advisory Committee, Member, 1975, 1987

He was also professionally affiliated with several societies in the field of aeronautics and astronautics:

• American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Technical Program Chairman, 21st International Electric Propulsion Conference, 1990
• American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Member, Technical Committee on Electric Propulsion, 1988
• American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Member, Technical Committee on Plasmadynamics & Lasers, 1986
• American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Chairman, 11th International Electric Propulsion Conference, 1975
• American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Member, Technical Committee on Electric Propulsion, 1972
• American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics, Member
• American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Fellow

Personal Life
When Dr. Wilbur wasn’t teaching or in the lab, he enjoyed building furniture in his workshop. Many pieces still grace his and Mrs. Wilbur’s home today. He is also dedicated to the Church. “He has always been very involved with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints. He has been a bishop twice, in a leadership position many times, a Scout Master and a teacher of the youth,” said Mrs. Wilbur.

Propulsion conferences took Dr. Wilbur all over the world which encouraged the couple to travel. “We would then take a few days after the conference and visit the country where the conference was being held; consequently we were able to visit a lot of the world this way,” Mrs. Wilbur added.

A senior design group photo co-advised by Dr. Paul Wilbur (left), and Dr. John Williams (right).

His Legacy
Dr. Wilbur’s former lab is now run by Dr. Williams and called the Center for Electric Propulsion and Plasma Engineering, also known as the “CEPPE Lab.” “The lab is still successful because of the hard work Dr. Wilbur put into establishing it and the skills he ingrained in me to move it forward,” said Dr. Williams.

Dr. Wilbur’s contributions to CSU, the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the field of space propulsion is truly a force to be reckoned with. His rewarding professional career and personal life is evident, and serves as a prime example for current and future ME faculty. His impact to the foundation of the Department is deep-rooted and has made it what it is today.

“Whenever I’m struggling, I wonder, what would Dr. Wilbur do? Then, I do just that, because he did things the right way, and he influenced thousands of individuals to do the same,” said Dr. Williams.

Today, Dr. Wilbur resides in Fort Collins with his wife, Mrs. Wilbur.

If you have memories you would like to share about your experiences with Dr. Wilbur, please contact Sona Srinarayana,