TCS Daily

A Giant Remembers

By Sallie Baliunas - October 4, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: Dr. Sallie Baliunas interviewed Dr. Robert Jastrow. Jastrow was the founding director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He is the director of the Mount Wilson Institute. He is the author of the influential book Red Giants and White Dwarfs.

Baliunas: Of all man's inventions, rocketry surely must rank high on the list of technologies in the 20th century that had a major societal impact. And October 4, 2002 marks the 45th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. And you were there. Why don't you talk about where you were in 1957 and 1958.

Jastrow: I was a nuclear physicist with the Naval Research Laboratory. And it happened that the Naval Research Lab, NRL, had been given the responsibility for getting the first American satellite up. So I wandered across the hall of NRL into the office of a project launching the first satellite called Vanguard. And I asked if I could be of any help. They said, yes, we need help in calculating the orbits of satellites, our own and the Russians. The Sputnik 1, of course, was a satellite. And the Sputnik 1 rocket casing, according to the Russians, crashed down in the United States, and they wanted it back. I looked at the radar sightings and discovered that actually it had come down somewhere between Siberia and China.

In 1958 in the summer I went to Moscow with a delegation of Americans to attend a rocket and satellite conference. And I announced my findings there in a paper I read. I still remember the scene. It was a big auditorium at Moscow University. You could have heard a pin drop because I was, in effect, accusing Khrushchev of being a liar. Anyway, the Russians didn't let that news out for a long time, but later they did.

I went back to the U.S. and got an invitation from a big shot at the Naval Research Lab to join the fledgling space agency, which he was just forming, under the impetus of Senator Johnson. And so my imagination was excited by that prospect.

I joined the newly formed NASA and was charged with setting up a division of theoretical physicists and astronomers who do the science in that program. The kind of science that was needed, I figured, was the study of the moon, the planets, the stars, the galaxies. So I dove into that subject.

I found a book by Harold Urey called The Planets. I went out to San Diego where he was teaching and he sat me down and opened his book to the chapter on the moon. And he said, the moon is the only accessible body to us that has the history of the Earth's past. It has no volcanic eruptions to obscure it. It has no atmosphere to erode it. It may contain the secrets of the origin of the planets and the origin of life. That was pretty heady stuff.

Harold came east at our invitation to give a lecture. Afterwards Harold and I sat down, he said, let's write a memo proposing that the United States accelerate its program, and, in the long run, aim at the moon rather than Mars or Venus. And so we did that. He took it to NASA's Abe Silverstein and Silverstein approved. And Silverstein wrote in the calendar for utmost activities an entry that said, 'Robert Jastrow, Project Officer, Moon and Exploration.' That's when science entered the moon program for the first time.

Baliunas: And can we put some time reference on this? Now, I know Congress authorized NASA in July of 1958. And then officially, NASA was created October 1 of 1958. So this is shortly after that?

Jastrow: All occurred in October and November, and also going on into January.

Baliunas: So, right at NASA's birth?

Jastrow: That's right.

Baliunas: Now, was there talk, initially, of going to Mars or Venus?

Jastrow: Yes. The management of NASA had no idea the moon was interesting to scientists. And they were aiming at going to Mars or Venus. You couldn't land in Venus, but they aimed to get close to it and, if possible, to land on Mars. This was all new to them, this fact, the moon was very interesting.

Baliunas: And, of course, engineering wise, it is an excellent stepping stone.

Jastrow: That's right. I convened a working group on lunar exploration with a lot of good people on it. And we set about defining the scientific payloads for the moon shots.

Then, of course, in January, as you may remember, we were ready to launch our first satellite in what was called the Vanguard project. I was in the control room of the Vanguard project when it was launched. It was a little thing, smaller than Sputnik, but it would have been a satellite.

However, the rocket fell apart and burst into flames when it had risen a few feet off its pad. And so our moon program, the newspapers all over the world, said slopnik, kaputnik, and so on. The program was badly humiliated and there was an appreciable swing of political power towards the Soviet Union because of its demonstration of superiority to the U.S. in this area. The head of the Vanguard project was John Hagen. I remember the look on his face when he got the telephone call from the Cape saying the Vanguard rocket had just disintegrated. It was devastating.

Baliunas: The Soviet Union had already, several months before that, launched Sputnik 2 with a live payload.

Jastrow: It was a dog.

Baliunas: With the poor dog Laika.

Jastrow: Yeah.

Baliunas: But then the U.S. did successfully launch Explorer 1 in late January of 1958.

Jastrow: Yeah, we finally got going.

Baliunas: And then from that, led a series of science programs, and, actually, from that you founded Goddard Institute at NASA?

Jastrow: Yes. I formed a theoretical division in Washington, but I wanted to build up our scientific staff. And it was hard to get people to come to Washington. They preferred to stay near MIT and other places. So I persuaded NASA to let us move up to New York and onto the Columbia campus, then we were able to get away from the restrictions of the civil service. People came and got adjunct professorships, instead of middle level civil service, we had graduate students. It was a very academic and very productive atmosphere.

Baliunas: And what was the scientific focus of Goddard Institute?

Jastrow: The early history of the solar system. Second, cosmology. And, third, matters that relate to the origin of life.

There was a fourth point, which came in later. When I retired from Goddard many years later, I nominated Jim Hansen as my successor. And Jim was very interested in global warming matters. So, when he became director of the institute, he concentrated a lot of its effort on scientific matters in climates.

Baliunas: Now, in setting up the Goddard Institute in the early days, scientific research was soon going to be welded to another astonishing technological achievement of the 20th century, which was the computer. So what was your early computing capability like there?

Jastrow: We had the world's biggest and fastest computer at the time, which was an IBM 36095. They only made two of them. We got one.

Baliunas: And about when was that?

Jastrow: That would have been in the '70's. It was very interesting because in the building we were renting from Columbia, the whole floor was devoted to this computer. It literally filled up the entire floor. And its memory and speed were considerably inferior to a PC today. And it cost, of course, millions of dollars.

Baliunas: And, weighed tons.

Jastrow: Weighed tons.

Baliunas: Tell me the story about Tom Gold and the dust on the moon.

Jastrow: Gold was a member of this lunar science working group, which was the start of a moon program in NASA. And he brought to our meetings a grim message that he expected, because of a micro-meteorite bombardment, the surface of the moon would be covered with a thick layer of rock dust that would swallow up any astronaut or payload that we dropped down there. And this caused a lot of worry in NASA and elsewhere. Of course, he was wrong, it was just a very thin layer, of a few millimeters, perhaps, but that was Tom's contribution to our deliberation.

Baliunas: I remember seeing you on television making commentary on Apollo programs.

Jastrow: Yes. I was one of the more active public spokesmen for NASA, explaining to the public why it was scientifically interesting to do all of this. And so I was, since that was a newsworthy subject, I was much in demand.

Baliunas: And those experiences actually led to your interest in cosmology and writing on cosmology?

Jastrow: Yes, well, there was more involved. We set about building up a staff in astronomy at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Vittorio Canuto was one, Dick Stothers was another. And so through them I began to learn something about the subject.

And then I gave a series of lectures on CBS, 104 of them, as I recall, early morning programs. Sunrise Semester it was called. And in preparing those programs, I taught myself a lot of cosmology and astronomy. And, finally, I wrote a book called Red Giants and White Dwarfs. And in writing that book, and in writing a textbook that Malcolm Thompson and I did in astronomy, then I really learned the subject right down to the ground.

Baliunas: And there's been an interesting subtext in your splendid science books, that cosmology is an event that leads in a causal way to modern humans.

Jastrow: I think that's a terribly interesting result, that there is a chain of cause and effect that stretches, without a break, from the big bang in the beginning of the universe, down through the formation of stars and planets. The formation of the Earth, origin of life on the Earth, and up through the paths of evolution to the appearance of mankind. So, it's really a scientist's story of genesis. And it has, of course, theological implications.

Baliunas: And do you speculate on where the universe is headed, what the outlook is for it?

Jastrow: Yes, the best evidence, and it is fairly recent, is that the universe will fly apart forever. Stars will burn out. The planets will go cold. Life will disappear. It all ends in darkness. Darkness and nothing.

Baliunas: And nothing. As opposed to in its beginning, which was brightness and chaos.

Jastrow: That's right. The latest observations have actually shown that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. It's not just slowing down as a result of the attraction of gravity on all its pieces. But for some reason it is accelerating.

Einstein predicted that acceleration, in effect, but then he gave up. He wanted to balance the inward force of gravity, pulling the universe together, so as to make it static and non-changing, because he thought that's the way it must be.

Then, of course, Edwin Hubble discovered the expanding universe and Einstein discovered that the universe was not static and unchanging. And he regretted very much putting in this force of anti-gravity, and he said that' s the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life.

Baliunas: But we've now resurrected that idea.

Jastrow: Yes, because of these new observations on the expansion, the accelerating expansion.

Baliunas: Well, again, thank you so much for your time.

Dr. Jastrow: Thank you.



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