Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 13
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  • ROBERT C. SEAMANS, JR. 1918–2008


    ROBERT C. SEAMANS, JR. one of the nation’s outstanding engineering leaders, senior administrator for several federal agencies, and former president of NAE, died on June 28, 2008, at the age of 89.

    Associate administrator, then associate and deputy administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1960 to 1968, Dr. Seamans helped lead the nation’s space program from its infancy to its triumphant Apollo successes. He was secretary of the Air Force from 1969 until 1973 and became president of NAE in 1973. In 1974, he became the fi rst administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy.

    Robert Seamans was born on October 30, 1918, in Salem, Massachusetts. He attended Lenox School, in Lenox, Massachusetts, and earned a B.S. in engineering from Harvard in 1939, an M.S. in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1942, and a D.S. in instrumentation from MIT in 1951. As part of his doctoral work, he assisted Charles Stark Draper, a pioneer in gyroscope guidance, in developing tracking systems that enabled Navy ships to target enemy planes. Those systems were later used for missile navigation and eventually to guide Apollo astronauts to the Moon.

    From 1941 to 1955, Dr. Seamans held teaching and research positions at MIT, working on instrumentation and control of missiles and aircraft. In 1955, he joined the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) as manager of the Airborne Systems Laboratory and chief systems engineer. In 1958, he became chief engineer of the Missile Electronics and Controls Division at RCA.

    In 1960, he joined NASA as associate administrator, and in 1965, he became deputy administrator. He also performed general-management responsibilities and served as acting administrator. Dr. Seamans worked closely with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) in coordinating research and engineering programs, serving as co-chair of the joint DOD/ NASA Aeronautics Coordinating Board, which kept both DOD and NASA aware of NASA’s activities that were relevant to national security.

    Dr. Seamans played a central role in the Apollo Program, both in the technical achievement of the mission and in the initial decision and commitment to undertake the program. He worked closely with the Kennedy administration to fulfi ll Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the Moon. Dr. Seamans’ retrospective of the lunar landing program is documented in a monograph, Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions (Monographs in Aerospace History Number 37, NASA SP).

    With his unusual skills, Dr. Seamans was able to help achieve the ambitious goal of a manned lunar landing. In an introduction to Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, a history of NASA, he described the monumental technical and organizational challenges involved in carrying men to the Moon and bringing them back safely. “As planning for Apollo began, we identifi ed more than 10,000 separate tasks that had to be accomplished to put a man on the Moon,” Dr. Seamans wrote. “Each task had its particular objectives, its manpower needs, its time schedule, and its complex interrelationship with many other tasks.” With his trademark attention to detail and his ability to cut problems down to size, he tackled the most daunting tasks. Colleagues commented that he had a remarkable ability to get to the essence of things and could take complicated issues and make diffi cult decisions quickly. No matter what, he kept moving forward toward the goal.

    In January 1968, he resigned from NASA to become a visiting professor at MIT, and in July of that year, he was appointed the Jerome Hunsaker Professor, an MIT-endowed visiting professorship in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics named in honor of the founder of the Aeronautical Engineering Department. At the same time, Seamans remained a consultant to the administrator of NASA. Also in 1968, not only was Dr. Seamans elected to the National Academy of Engineering, but he was also appointed secretary of the Air Force. When the appointment was confi rmed in 1969, he became a member of a burgeoning elite of government and industry scientist- administrators. At the beginning of his term as secretary, he recognized that the Air Force had to modernize, quickly and with as little expense as possible. This, he knew, would require more effi cient management controls. The Air Force had to phase in programs in such a way that excessive peak demands on the budget were avoided. Because it was impossible to predict future threats or the technological innovations that would be required, Seamans argued that the Air Force should provide development options from which it could select necessary procurement programs.

    After two years in office, Seamans, who had planned to stay for only two years, 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; resolve the F-111 cost and technical diffi culties; move new programs, such as the F-15, B-1, AWACS, A-X, and F-5E, to a point at which the Air Force could be confi dent in its policy of “fl y before buy”; and improve military and civilian personnel policies. His willingness to stay, however, depended on the administration’s determination to end U.S. activities in Southeast Asia.

    In May 1973, when Seamans fi nally left DOD to become president of NAE, President Richard M. Nixon said that his administration was fortunate to have had a person of Seamans’ leadership and managerial ability directing the development of sophisticated new aircraft and helping to improve U.S. missile systems. Nixon credited Seamans with keeping the Air Force modernization program costs very close to projected estimates and for creating an environment in which people serving in the Air Force believed they could realize their potential.

    In 1974, President Gerald R. Ford named Dr. Seamans the fi rst administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), which, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, had replaced the Atomic Energy Commission. ERDA was the precursor of the U.S. Department of Energy. With an annual budget of about $6 billion, a staff of more than 7,000, a complex of federal laboratories and contracts with universities and industrial research organizations, Dr. Seamans faced the fallout from the Arab oil embargo of 1973–1974. On his fi rst day in the job, he said, “There is no way we can become self-suffi cient in 10 years or any time in the future if we keep increasing the use of energy.”

    Important steps in energy conservation, he said, would be the development of automobiles that get more than 40 percent better gas mileage and the design of buildings that would be less expensive to heat and cool. His agency’s fi rst report to Congress in 1975 emphasized increasing production of nuclear power, coal, shale oil, crude oil, and natural gas over the next decade. But within a year, the report was revised, to indicate that ERDA would give “the highest priority” to energy conservation. In 1974, shortly after he was named head of ERDA, Dr. Seamans told The New York Times, “We are never again going to have a cheap-energy situation, and we have got to use every string in our bow if we are going to maintain the lifestyle of this country.”

    Dr. Seamans returned to MIT, and, in 1978, became dean of the MIT School of Engineering. In 1981, he was elected chairman of the board of the Aerospace Corporation. From 1977 to 1984, he was the Henry Luce Professor of Environment and Public Policy at MIT, where he remained a senior lecturer in Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 1996, he published his autobiography, Aiming at Targets (University Press of the Pacifi c, 2004).

    Bob Seamans was an avid sailor and devoted family man. He and his wife, Eugenia, recently celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary. Immediately before his death, he was still playing tennis and looking forward to voyages on his refurbished 45- foot Bristol sailboat. In addition to his wife, Dr. Seamans leaves two daughters, Katharine Padulo and May Baldwin, and three sons, Joseph, Robert III, and Daniel, as well as 11 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

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