Fred Whipple’s Empire: The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, 1955-1973

October 11, 2018
Phillips Auditorium

In 1955, the Astrophysical Observatory of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington,
D.C., on the south lawn of the Smithsonian Castle, closed and moved as a budget line to the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Donald Menzel, working in concert with Smithsonian secretary Leonard Carmichael and Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy, encouraged Fred Lawrence Whipple to assume the directorship of the new unit. Initially, Whipple wanted to create an academia-based institutional model for conducting space science in the United States, making his newly minted Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory a central organizing unit. Instead, after the U.S. government created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to do
just that, Whipple deftly adjusted, building highly competitive programs in astrophysics, space astronomy, geophysics, geodesy, and ground-based optical and radio astronomy.

Here I present an overview of how Whipple constructed his empire, first through the expansive era preparing for the International Geophysical Year and then through the early NASA years, creating an astronomical enterprise unlike any the world had seen. I follow his continued ambitions through the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, aided and abetted by a new Smithsonian secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, to examine how his continued efforts resulted in both congressional scrutiny of the Smithsonian and a re-evaluation of the relationship of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to Harvard and, ultimately, to science in America.

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