R. C. Seamans Jr., NASA Figure, Dies at 89
Published: July 3, 2008
Robert C. Seamans Jr., NASA‘s nuts-and-bolts manager of the Apollo moon-landing program, who later served as secretary of the Air Force and then as the first administrator of the federal energy research agency, died Saturday at his home in Beverly Farms, Mass. He was 89.
Robert C. Seamans Jr. in 1967 with model of Apollo spacecraft.
Dr. Seamans was deputy administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the frenzied years after President John F. Kennedy‘s 1961 declaration of his intent to land Americans on the moon by the end of the decade.
Although his NASA title implies that Dr. Seamans was second in command, the agency’s top administrator at the time, James E. Webb, said in January 1969 — six months before the Apollo 11 landing — that his subordinate was the “general manager” who had fit the space program together.
That, too, was the assessment of Michael Collins, one of the Apollo astronauts who set out for the moon on July 16, 1969, and then stayed aboard the orbiting spacecraft while Neil A. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface four days later.
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Mr. Collins said Dr. Seamans had “carried the weight of the management and administration because Jim Webb was obliged to touch all the bases in Washington external to NASA.”
“He calmed troubled waters in an enterprise as complex and with as many diverse personalities as Apollo was,” Mr. Collins said, adding that Dr. Seamans “was the balance” between scientists, engineers, contractors and “sometimes the astronauts.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Dr. Seamans had left NASA a year before the lunar landing, saying that he wanted to “think ahead to what I will do for the last 15 years of my professional life.”
He returned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had taught from 1951 to 1955. But not for long. Ten days after he sold his Washington home in 1968, President Richard M. Nixon named him secretary of the Air Force.
While in that post for four years, he successfully pushed for new Air Force weapons systems even as the United States was withdrawing from Vietnam and military spending was being reduced. Dr. Seamans aroused some controversy in 1971 when he said he was “not in the operational chain of command” and had learned about a major bombing campaign against North Vietnam only “when I heard it on ‘The Today Show.’ ”
When asked for his view of the war’s toll on civilians, he told The Washington Post: “War itself is immoral. I have to face life the way it is right at this moment.”
In 1974, President Gerald R. Ford named Dr. Seamans as the first administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration, which, along with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, had replaced the Atomic Energy Commission. ERDA, as it was called, is now considered a precursor of the 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 1973-4.
On his first day in the job, Dr. Seamans said, “There is no way we can become self-sufficient in 10 years or any time in the future if we keep increasing the use of energy.”
Important elements 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 first report to Congress in 1975 emphasized greater production of nuclear power, coal, shale oil, crude oil and natural gas over the next decade. But within a year, that report was revised, saying that ERDA would give “the highest priority” to energy conservation.
Robert Channing Seamans Jr. was born in Salem, Mass., on Oct. 30, 1918, the eldest son of Robert and Pauline Seamans. Besides his son Joseph, he is survived by his wife, Eugenia; a brother Donald; two other sons, Robert 3rd and Daniel; two daughters, Katharine Padulo and May Baldwin; 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Science was in Dr. Seamans’s DNA. His great-great-grandfather Otis Tufts constructed the first steam-operated printing press in the United States and invented the steam pile driver.
After graduating from Harvard in 1940, Dr. Seamans earned a master’s degree in aeronautics at M.I.T., in 1942 and a Ph.D. in instrumentology there 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 in missile navigation and eventually to guide Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Dr. Seamans joined the Radio Corporation of America in 1955 as director of its missile electronics and control division, a position he held until joining NASA in 1960. In 1977, after three years as head of the federal energy agency, he returned to M.I.T. where, from 1978 to 1981, he was dean of the engineering department. He retired in 1984.
In 1974, shortly after he was named head of the energy administration, 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.”
Photos of rockets and astronauts lined his office, and on a table stood a statue of Don Quixote. “I have always sort of liked him,” Dr. Seamans said.