He shuffles a bit when he walks and there was a slight shake in his right hand but there was no mistaking Neil Armstrong yesterday when he and others came to remember his Apollo 11 architect colleague Robert C. Seamans Jr. The occasion was the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11.
“Bob was the perfect man for the job. He knew the laboratories and researchers. He tended to state the facts which was very uncommon in Washington. He had the technical [experience] to make big rocket engines to the moon,” the 78-year-old Armstrong said of Seamans who passed away a year ago. I shook Armstrong’s steady hand, thinking he’s the only human I ever touched who’s been on another celestial body. Cool!
The star of the event was the late Seamans who was lauded for his tough decision-making and working for the good of the country when the Space Race with the Soviets was running full tilt throughout the Sixties.
Seamans was deputy administrator for NASA for the better part of the Sixties had to make key decisions such as whether to go directly to moon from earth orbit or use a moon orbiter (Earth-Orbit Rendezvous or Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous). Should two astronaut’s go the moon’s surface or one? How do you test the stages of the huge Saturn V rocket?
The pressure that the program could be a disaster in so many respects was unrelenting. Seamans confided countless times to colleagues how “lucky” NASA was with the success and safety of the program.
And then there were little decisions and territorial disputes.
“NASA [labs] differed on English or international measurements. Huntsville (where rockets were made) wanted meters. Houston (Space Center) wanted feet. He faced big challenges. He had a billion dollars spread all over the United States, but it was clear we were not catching up with the Soviets,” Armstrong said, who added that when they put Yuri Gagarin successfully into orbit in 1961, the nation was “thunderstruck and embarrassed.”
“Alan Shepard (first manned U.S. space flight) was technically less impressive, but it was enough to give us hope. We were in the race,” Armstrong said.
Indeed, Seamans enjoyed a storied career - besides his time at NASA, he was secretary of the Air Force where he modernized development programs, MIT dean of engineering and president of the National Academy of Engineering. He sat on numerous scientific boards and was genuinely loved by students, colleagues and friends as a man who did the right thing and who could bring competing sides together.
The afternoon was about a behind-the-scenes player not the first guy who stepped off the LEM onto the the moon. Armstrong would have wanted it that way on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. Educators, engineers, rocket scientists, Apollo pioneers and another former secretary of the Air Force (Sheila Widnall) offered their thoughts on Seamans.
Two of the most interesting observations came from two ex-presidents of MIT. Charles Vest in a video recalled having an “amazing” dinner with Seamans who confided that President John F. Kennedy had said the U.S needed to put a man on mars to win the space race.
Mars? Seamans had to tell him this was impossible. Later, I asked Buzz Aldrin who was second on the moon if I had heard that right. He thought maybe Vest meant the moon, but wasn’t sure.
Former MIT president Paul Gray put Seamans contribution at NASA this way:
“He drove the creation of robust [space] vehicles that didn’t only put men on the moon, but brought them home safely in crippled space vehicles in Apollo 13.”
The MUST SEE video below was mentioned several times yesterday. It was a lecture given by Armstrong and Seamens in 1994 when they talked about the creation of the Apollo program (Aldrin was there as well). It was considered a virtuoso performance by those pursuing aeronautics and aerospace careers. It’s an incredible story which Seamens also put in his autobiography Aiming at Targets.