Remembering Robert Jastrow
February 11, 2008
We regret to announce the passing of Dr. Robert Jastrow, Chairman Emeritus of the George C. Marshall Institute, on February 8, 2008. Born in New York in 1925, Robert Jastrow was a prominent American scientist who worked in the U.S. lunar landing program, established and managed two significant scientific research centers, and played an active role in national public policy debates on national security and environmental policy.
Robert Jastrow earned A.B., A.M. and Ph.D. degrees in theoretical physics at Columbia University. Following post-doctoral studies, he became an assistant professor at Yale before joining the staff at the Naval Research Laboratory. In 1958, Homer Newell, the Assistant Director for Space Sciences of the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), created its theoretical division to devote attention to basic research in cosmology, astronomy, and planetary sciences and recruited Jastrow to head it. Dr. Jastrow?s contributions to the American presence in space were felt almost immediately.
According to Newell, when Robert Jastrow transferred from the Naval Research Laboratory, he immediately set to work helping to plan the future space science program. An attractive, able scientist, Jastrow quickly earned the support of the administrator's office. He took the lead in developing for NASA a theoretical space sciences group, from which eventually came the Theoretical Division and the Institute for Space Studies, the principal scientific research units within the newly formed Goddard Space Flight Center. Through both of these activities Jastrow was instrumental in drawing a high level of scientific talent into the agency, either as civil service employees or as visiting scientists.
One of the first people he met was Harold Urey, the Nobel Laureate chemist. Urey explained the unique importance of the moon for understanding the origin of the earth and the other planets. Jastrow became a convert and champion of lunar exploration. In December 1958, Jastrow brought Urey to a meeting with Newell at NASA Headquarters and they made the case for NASA to build a significant program for lunar exploration beyond the projects inherited from the Defense Department. The Ranger Project, Newell reflected some years later, was in effect born on [that] day. Also certainly born on that day was the resolve that NASA should have a serious program of lunar exploration directed toward the goals envisioned by planetary scientists.
Even more important, perhaps, was the subsequent introduction of planetary scientists into the planning structure of NASA. Newell formed an ad hoc Working Group on Lunar Exploration. Chaired by Robert Jastrow, the new lunar working group was a forum for the exchange of views between scientists at NASA and in the academic world and it had charge of evaluating and recommending the experiments to be placed in orbit about the moon or landed on its surface.
Early on, Dr. Jastrow realized the importance of drawing upon the talents of the university community to make effective use of space technology as a research tool. With permission from NASA and in association with Columbia University, he organized the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and became its first Director when it opened its doors near the Columbia University campus in 1961. As a U.S. government laboratory charged with carrying out research in astronomy, atmospheric science, and weather and climate prediction, Goddard Institute scientists played a key role in the Pioneer, Voyager, and Galileo planetary missions, under Jastrow?s guidance. In recognition of his work at NASA, Jastrow received the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and the Arthur Fleming Award for Outstanding Service to the U.S. Government.
While serving Director of the Goddard Institute, Dr. Jastrow held joint professorial appointments in the Astronomy and Geology Departments at Columbia University. He stayed at the helm of the Goddard Institute for twenty years before becoming joining the faculty at Dartmouth College, where he held the position of Professor of Earth Sciences until 1992. In that year he resigned to become Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Mount Wilson Institute, which manages the Mount Wilson Observatory in California on behalf of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Dr. Jastrow retired as Director of the Mount Wilson Institute in January 2003.
With Drs. Frederick Seitz and William Nierenberg, Dr. Jastrow founded the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984 to conduct assessments of scientific issues affecting public policy. He was an influential figure in the public debates on ballistic missile defense and climate change and also a member of the Board of Governors of the National Space Society.
Dr. Jastrow was a prolific author and public commentator on the space program, astronomy, earth science, and national security. Following his tenure at NASA, he worked to popularize atmospheric science and hosted more than 100 CBS-TV network programs on space science. He was the special guest of NBC-TV with Wernher von Braun for the Apollo-Soyuz flights, and he was the featured guest of the TODAY show on the 10th anniversary of the landing on the moon. Dr. Jastrow?s articles in issues in science have appeared in the New York Times, Time, Reader?s Digest, Foreign Affairs, Commentary, Atlantic Monthly and Scientific American.
Dr. Jastrow?s books include Red Giants and White Dwarfs ? The Evolution of Stars, Planets and Life; Until the Sun Dies; God and the Astronomers; The Enchanted Loom ? Mind in the Universe; Astronomy ? Fundamentals and Frontiers; Journey to the Stars ? Space Exploration Tomorrow and Beyond and Scientific Perspectives on the Greenhouse Problem with William Nierenberg and Frederick Seitz.