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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AeroAstro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2008–2009 issue of AeroAstro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Celebrating the life of Robert C. Seamans Jr.

By Louis Padulo

(Editor's note: As part of the “Giant Leaps” celebration of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, AeroAstro hosted a memorial gathering to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Robert C. Seamans Jr., one of the principal architects of the Apollo Program. Seamans, a former professor of aeronautics and astronautics and dean of engineering at MIT passed away in 2008. He also served as deputy and then acting administrator of NASA, president of the National Academy of Engineering, Secretary of the Air Force, and he was the first administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration, the precursor to today’s Department of Energy.)


Neil Armstrong, speaking at MIT’s June 11 memorial to his former boss Robert Seamans Jr. On the stage are (from left) Carnegie Institution for Science president Richard Meserve; Kistler Aerospace CEO and former Office of Manned Space Flight associate administrator George Mueller; and AeroAstro Apollo Program Professor Lawrence Young.

At the start of AeroAstro’s memorial for Bob, AeroAstro Department head Ian Waitz said, “More than a year ago we started planning these events and we assumed that Bob Seamans would be an important part of the events, and we expect he would have very much enjoyed being part of the events. And when he passed away, we felt the best way to keep him as a very important part of the event was to join these celebrations with a commemoration of his life.”

I always knew that Bob Seamans had a lot of friends. I was proud to be one of them, having worked for Bob at RCA — three years before becoming his son-in-law. I also knew that Bob had a host of professional contacts and quite a few organizations whose “causes” he encouraged and supported. When Bob died last summer, and his wife and five children planned funeral arrangements, my job was to notify friends and contacts of his passing and tell them about the church service on July 2nd. I sat in Bob’s study and, using his lists and directories, emailed all his contacts for whom I could find addresses. Recognizing that many friends might be away for the 4th of July or summer holidays, I mentioned that the family hoped to celebrate Bob Seamans’ extraordinary life and accomplishments along with his professional and civic colleagues on some future occasion.

Well, I never got as much email in my life as I did in response to that message. In addition to the outpouring of condolences and the overflow crowd that made it to St. John’s church in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, there quickly developed a queue of institutions and organizations offering to host such a Seamans celebration. The common thread in these invitations was: “We’d like to host the ceremony honoring Bob — he loved and helped us a lot, and we loved him.”

Had Bob Seamans still been with us, he would have continued to mentor and support all those organizations he cared for, but he would have really gotten his juices flowing by working with the MIT AeroAstro Department to organize a symposium celebrating the Apollo Program and contemplating “next steps” for the future. One of the principal architects of Apollo, Bob would have been a key speaker and panelist in that symposium and would have enjoyed himself immensely, reminiscing with peers and colleagues and helping chart a course for the next generation of students, faculty and citizens.

Thus, when Ed Crawley and Ian Waitz proposed that AeroAstro would honor Bob with a special commemoration ceremony as part of the “Giant Leaps” Symposium, the Seamans family was thrilled to accept. Of all the organizations so dear to Bob, none were dearer than AeroAstro and MIT. As Ed and Ian pointed out, Bob was a student there, met and worked with Doc Draper, became a professor and a Dean of Engineering (a high calling) at MIT, before, between, and after his RCA, NASA, Air Force, ERDA, and National Academy of Engineering appointments.

Generously, MIT’s AeroAstro Department offered to not only host the Seamans celebration, but to invite Bob Seamans’ “significant other” organizations to participate and contribute to it as well. ManBob Seamansy of those organizations did participate and shared their perspectives on Bob and his life. So did a number of AeroAstro graduate students who read passages they selected from Bob’s charming autobiography “Aiming at Targets.” A video produced by the department permitted some participants unable to attend in person to reflect on aspects of Bob Seamans’ contributions. Several people at the ceremony spoke from the floor microphones and, before we knew it, it was over. A raucous, joyous, jazz band led us all, New Orleans style, to a reception and informal mingling of relatives, colleagues and symposium attendees.

On behalf of all those organizations and people with whom AeroAstro shared the occasion, Gene Seamans and her family thank Bob’s MIT family for making the ceremony such a memorable celebration of a life well lived.

Louis Padulo, President Emeritus of Philadelphia's University City Science Center, was invited by AeroAstro to help organize and MC the Robert Seamans commemoration. Louis earned his Ph.D. (in EE) at Georgia Tech under B.J. Dasher, an MIT contemporary of Bob’s, was an engineering professor at Stanford; served as engineering dean at Boston University while Bob was dean at MIT; and was president of University of Alabama in Huntsville. He is an adjunct professor at Penn State and Princeton where he teaches product design.

Following are excerpts of the many accolades, remembrances, and thoughts about Bob Seamans delivered by his friends, family and colleagues at the Seamans Memorial event.

Dick Batten, Apollo guidance, navigation, and control director; AeroAstro senior lecturer

Richard Battin1951 was an important year. It was ten years before the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory would be chosen for the Apollo guidance system. 1951 the Whirlwind computer, which was MIT’s project, had a little over 1,000 words of memory and it consumed so much power that before you could turn it on you had to call the electric utility because it was going to be a big drop. Ten years later we built computers that could fly to the moon. Also in 1951, Bob Seamans became Doctor of Science. He had worked with Doc Draper from 1940 and modestly 1951 was when Richard Batten received a Ph.D. in applied mathematics.

Much later, when Bob was a senior lecturer at MIT, he helped me with some freshmen seminars. He would call me up and say, “I’d like to be on your seminar.” And he was so attractive to these young teenagers and he was willing to talk to them well into the early evening. Last winter, while he was in failing health, he drove in on a cold and blustery day to my winter lecture on MIT and Apollo. As he said, it was to keep me honest! The world has lost a giant. And he will always be remembered as such.

Charles Vest, MIT president emeritus and National Academy of Engineering president (via video)

Charles VestOne of the most amazing things that ever happened to me in my life was I spent a long evening over dinner in the outskirts of Houston with Bob Seamans. And Bob began to reminisce in great detail about the Apollo program, how did it come about, how he experienced it, what it meant, how people reacted. He told me things that just have stuck with me ever since. One was that President Kennedy had been convinced that he should go before the Congress and the American people and announce that America needed to send a man to Mars and back before the decade was out. Bob told me the story of working three days and nights trying to put together, clearly and succinctly, the case for the president that we cannot hit that goal. We need to go to the moon. I’ve just never forgotten that because suppose that the president had gotten up in this inspirational speech and set a goal that was not only audacious but couldn’t be accomplished. The goal had to be right and Bob played a very major role in doing that.

Larry Young, MIT AeroAstro Apollo Program Professor

Larry YoungBob made countless crucial leadership decisions, which benefited our country in space, in the military, in energy and then back at MIT as well. What was it that made (Bob) so effective? He had an engineer’s viewpoint towards solving tough problems. He was doing systems engineering before it became a buzzword. He had the ability to concentrate on finding the solution rather than argue about the pros and cons of competing approaches. And he was willing to listen, listen to unpopular or even eccentric opinions and form his independent conclusions. A prime example is his treatment and finally adoption of the concept of landing on the moon using lunar orbit rendezvous.

The risky, yet energy efficient way to go involved landing a small craft on the moon while keeping the larger return vehicle in lunar orbit. But this involved the single point failure risk of a botched rendezvous. In his wonderful, informal discussions with our class, and again in his book, Bob relates how he understood the criticality of making the rendezvous in far off lunar orbit, but based upon his experiences with Doc Draper and the gunsight development during the war, which also involved having two objects moving quite fast and meeting exactly at a distance, he was sure the lunar orbit rendezvous could be pulled off. And Bob was crucial in bringing NASA to that decision.

George Mueller, CEO of Kistler Aerospace and former Office of Manned Space Flight associate administrator

george muellerI was head of the Office of Manned Spaceflight, reporting to Bob. His first assignment was to ask me to review the program and the schedule as he was afraid that we would not be able to meet President Kennedy’s goal of a manned lunar landing and return within the decade, without some fundamental changes. I did a thorough review and he was indeed correct. We needed to make some dramatic changes. One change was he introduced the concept of all-up testing. That is to flight test the very first vehicle with all three stages and the two payload stages assembled and active. This was a radical departure from the practice of Marshall and of Houston and met a sizeable resistance. And the very next management meeting in Huntsville, Arthur Rudolph cornered Bob by the models of the Saturn V and the Jupiter and asked him how could one possibly test all the huge stages of Saturn V at the first firing? Bob said, “Talk to George.” Arthur went on to try the same argument on me. I simply said, “Why not?” And of course I had to back that up with some thorough and logical details of exactly how we should proceed. With Bob on board I must say all three centers embraced the concept, and best of all, it worked!

Edward F. Crawley, Ford Professor of Engineering, AeroAstro Department

Ed Crawley(Speaking of lessons he learned from Bob Seamans) Should we rendezvous in low earth orbit or not? (Bob) explained very carefully how he had much earlier than anyone thought at the time, come to the conclusion that LOR was the right answer. But that he did not think that he could impose that decision on the organization. He hired Joe Shay to go to the manned spaceflight center and convince the organization that this was the right thing to do. Lesson: Don’t force your decision on an organization even if you’re a boss.
Bob explained to me how John Hubolt had twice risked his career by sending letters around all of the NASA hierarchy directly to Dr. Seamans, to argue persuasively for the LOR (lunar orbit rendezvous) approach. Lesson: Have intellectual courage.

He told me of the meeting that he had at the White House when the decision about LOR actually went to the President and in the room were Jack Kennedy, Jerome Weisner, and Bob in the Oval Office. The president looked at Jerry Weisner and said, “Well, Jerry what do you think?” The scientific community was still backing the so-called direct or Von Braun approach in which one capsule would go all the way to the surface of the moon. And Jerry again argued for that approach. And Jack Kennedy turned to Jerry and said, “We should really listen to the people from NASA because they’re the people who are going not have to do this and who knows Jerry, you and I may not be around to see it.” Lesson: Make sure you listen very carefully to the people who have to execute the work before making a decision.

When the results of (NASA's Exploration Systems Architecture Study started coming out in 2005, this generation’s version of the LOR debate, Bob was brought in by NASA to be a graybeard and by coincidence he and Aaron Cohen were at the faculty lunch one Wednesday when the report was actually issued. And we hurried back up to my office, downloaded it from on line and found that it looked much like Apollo. Aaron looked at and said, “You know what they’re going to learn from this Bob? Just how hard it is to go to the moon.” And Bob looked at Aaron and said, “And just how lucky we were.”

Neil Armstrong, former astronaut and University of Cincinnati aerospace professor

Neil ArmstrongBob, the consummate engineer, tended to state the facts. And he soon learned that this was rather uncommon in Washington.

President Kennedy had noticed the remarkable impact (of the first U.S. manned spaceflight) on the public, both here and abroad. And it was confirmation that NASA could be depended upon. And Bob Seamans was dedicated to making the U.S. preeminent in space. He strengthened his organization. He found ways of attracting superior people to join the effort. He worked with the bureau of the budget and the president and the Congress to strengthen the budgets. Bob was genuinely interested in detail, in addition to getting a cockpit check in Mercury from John Glenn and talking with John Hubolt about lunar orbit rendezvous, he actually rode with me in the Gemini orbital docking simulator to understand the details of how it could really work. That engineer in him would not allow him to manage without understanding those details.
Dr. Robert C. Seamans Jr. was a leader of great ability at a critical time in the space race and we remember him with great warmth, admiration and respect.

Sheila Widnall, MIT Institute Professor

Sheila WidnallOne thing that Bob and I shared was our attachment to another flag, the flag of the Secretary of the Air Force. When I was offered the position of Secretary of the Air Force, I was wind surfing in Aruba. And I came into the board shop dripping wet to make two phone calls. One was to Chuck Vest and one was to Bob Seamans. Bob was very encouraging and said that I would be great and that it would be great fun and that I should definitely take the job.

After two years (as Air Force secretary), Seamans informed Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird that he wished to extend his tour to complete or initiate several projects. He wanted to place the C-5 contract with Lockheed on a sound basis. He wanted to resolve the F-111 cost and technical difficulties. He wanted to move new programs such as the F-15, the B-1, the AWACS, and the AX and the F-5E to the point where the Air Force could be confident in its policy of “fly before buy.” And he wanted to improve military and civilian personnel policies. However he stated that his willingness to stay with DOD depended on the administration’s determination to terminate US activities in Southeast Asia. President Nixon credited Seamans with keeping the Air Force modernization program cost so very close to projected estimates, and for creating an environment in which people serving in the Air Force believed they could realize their potential.

Richard Meserve, Carnegie Institution for Science president

Richard MeserveBob was elected a trustee of the Carnegie Institution in 1974. And we were privileged to have his support and guidance for 34 years. As I looked back in our file about Bob, I found materials arising from a lecture on energy policy that he gave at Carnegie in 1977, shortly after he left his post as the administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration, which was the predecessor of the Department of Energy. If people had listened to Bob, we would not be in the energy bind in which we find ourselves. Bob made the following points: He observed that 75 percent of the energy consumption in this country was based on dwindling assets, gas, and oil. And he urged that we get out of the gas and oil cul-de-sac. We’re now up to about 80 percent. He noted that there historically had been a long period of transition from one fuel to another, typically about 60 years between peak usages. And he observed that we had less than 60 years to make that transition. He was optimistic about alternative energy supplies, including nuclear power. And he did acknowledge however that the big practical problem with nuclear reactors was the disposal of spent fuel.

He observed the great opportunities in energy efficiency that were possible, citing the prospect for greatly improved automobile fuel economy, the application of new types of building design, the recycling of industrial heat, and effective use of cellulosic materials. He saw that efficiency measures could reduce consumption very significantly over the following years. He saw the problem as extremely difficult, but solvable. Given our current situation, albeit with the new dimension of climate change, we simply should have listened.

Paul Gray, MIT president emeritus

Paul GrayBob’s deep loyalty to MIT was again evident in 1978 when he accepted my invitation to serve as Dean of the School of Engineering. He both provided effective leadership of the school, a school that represents fully half of the Institute’s educational and research activities. And he contributed wisely to the governance of MIT as a member of the Academic Council. As a distinguished public servant and public citizen, as an engineer and a manager of complex engineering efforts, as a leader of men and women, as a loyal son of MIT and as a colleague and friend, Bob Seamans “left campground in better shape than he found it,” to borrow a phrase from Carl Taylor Compton. May memories of his life continue to inspire all of us who loved him.

Susan Hockfield, MIT president

Susan HockfieldI want to describe only three of the many remarkable ways Robert Seamans served the nation and the world. First, he was a superb engineer. He taught himself to be a great leader of people. In 1968 when he returned from NASA to teach at MIT, MIT’s then president, Howard Johnson, hailed Bob’s ability to “marshall diverse technological resources for the achievement of major national goals.” A quality as rare then as it is today. Bob carried on the finest MIT tradition of bringing to bear first class technical expertise to master the great problems of the day.

Second, he was an enthusiastic and beloved teacher well into his eighties. Yet he deliberately chose not to make teaching his only career because he understood deeply one of the principles that animates MIT right up to today: the transformative power of integrating teaching with front line research.

Third, he demonstrated an unswerving commitment to national service at the very highest level and at great personal cost. Punctuating his autobiography are multiple tales of Bob arranging a few rare days off, only to find himself on a sailboat in a foggy Maine harbor with someone rowing alongside to announce that he was needed in Washington. To MIT, to the space program, and to America’s science and technology leadership, Bob Seamans left an incomparable legacy.

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