Robert C. Seamans Jr., a leading NASA administrator during the Apollo program and former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, died on June 28 at his home in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. He was 89.
Seamans, a graduate student of Doc Draper and teaching assistant for him at MIT in the 1940s and 1950s, maintained close ties to his mentor and the Draper Laboratory throughout his life. He became a Member of the Corporation in 1973, served on the Board of Directors from 1973-1974 and 1977-1978, and became a Member Emeritus in 1988.
Dr. Seamans was a 1939 engineering graduate of Harvard University, and earned a master’s degree in aeronautics from MIT in 1942. He completed his doctorate in instrumentation (guidance equipment) in 1951, with Draper supervising his work. During the 1950s, Seamans taught aeronautical engineering at MIT and also entered the private sector from 1955-1960, serving as chief engineer of RCA’s Airborne Systems Lab and Missile and Controls Division.
Seamans became NASA’s associate administrator in 1960 and was instrumental in helping put men on the moon and return them safely to Earth during the Project Apollo effort. He and Doc Draper remained in close contact during this time. Draper even approached him about becoming an astronaut. “Following up our various conversations of recent days, I would like to formally volunteer for service as a crew member on the Apollo mission to the moon, and also for whatever suborbital and orbital flights that may be made in preparation for the lunar trip,” wrote Draper to Seamans in a letter dated November 21, 1961. “I realize that my age of 60 years is a negative factor in considering my request, but General Don Flickinger tells me that this is no sure bar to my selection as a crew member. I will gladly undergo any physical examinations and tests that may be prescribed and will take any courses of training that may be recommended.”
Doc Draper further believed that by volunteering, he would show his utmost confidence in the Apollo guidance work that the Instrumentation Laboratory was performing for NASA. “If I am willing to hang my life on our equipment, the whole project will surely have the strongest possible motivation and discussions of general design and details will be most responsible to my inputs,” wrote Draper.
Replying shortly thereafter, Seamans assured Draper that he would bring his request to the attention of the right people. “It is most reassuring to have the Instrumentation Laboratory working with us on the Apollo project and the tremendous value of your own personal interest is most appreciated,” wrote Seamans. While NASA did not ultimately take Doc Draper up on his offer to fly to the moon, the Instrumentation Laboratory delivered on its promise of building a top notch guidance and navigation system.
During an interview conducted with Seamans in December 1987, he recalled the reaction of then NASA administrator James E. Webb to Doc Draper’s offer. Doc “always found it was important that the people who designed and developed equipment had a chance to use it, and they were there at the time it was first being used, and (he said) he was available to go on the first lunar trip,” recalled Seamans. “I took this (letter) in and showed it to Webb, and he thought it was terrific. As far as he was concerned, he was going to go over and see the President and say, ‘There may be some scientists in the country that aren’t for the program, but here’s one that’s not only for it, he wants to go.’”
After leaving NASA in 1968, Seamans returned to his alma mater of MIT and served as a visiting professor. But he returned to government shortly thereafter, becoming the ninth secretary of the Air Force in 1969. During his four year tenure, he helped push for new Air Force weapons systems even as the US was withdrawing from Vietnam and military spending was being reduced. In 1974, he transitioned to another government post, becoming the first administrator of the new Energy Research and Development Administration.
From 1978 until his retirement in 1984, Dr. Seamans served as dean of MIT’s engineering school. Even after his retirement, Seamans would return to the classroom to teach freshman seminars in aeronautics. He was active right up until his death – as recently as two weeks ago, Seamans was playing tennis and looking forward to trips on his sailboat.
There will be a memorial service at a time to be announced at Harvard’s Memorial Church.