Report: Oral Histories in Meteoritics and Planetary Science: XIII: Fred L. Whipple

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  • This edited transcript of a detailed interview with astrophysicist Fred L. Whipple is prefaced by an abstract containing basic biographical information and a sketch of highlights experienced during his long career at Harvard University. The interviewer begins by asking Whipple, who was born in 1906, about his university degrees and his work as head of the observing program at the Harvard College Observatory after receiving his doctorate in astronomy in 1931.
  • Interviewer Ursula B. Marvin and Whipple discuss various positions he held within Harvard's Department of Astronomy. In 1950 he was appointed a professor, and in 1955 was chosen by Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael to serve concurrently as Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) when it moved from Washington, D.C. to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • During his career, Whipple implemented many innovative techniques for astrophysical studies and made valuable contributions in other efforts. In the 1930's, Whipple established the twenty-year Harvard Meteor Project to study orbits of meteors, showing them to be elliptical rather than the hyperbolic orbits, as suggested by Lincoln LaPaz and others. Whipple took a temporary leave of absence from the observatory during World War II to work with the Harvard Radio Research Laboratories, where he co-invented the chaff-cutter for aircraft to confuse enemy radar.
  • He invented the "Whipple Shield," or Meteor Bumper," a thin metal covering to protect the skin of a spacecraft from penetration by solids it would encounter; improved versions of it are still in use. Whipple was also involved in the U.S. Army's project on upper atmosphere research conducted at White Sands, New Mexico. In 1950 Whipple proposed his "dirty snowball" model of comet nuclei, which was fully confirmed in 1986 by close-up images of comet Halley.
  • Whipple anticipated the orbiting of satellites during the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year, and won contracts to build a worldwide network of twelve Baker Nunn telescopic cameras for the Satellite Tracking Program. He also assembled volunteer Moonwatch teams around the world to assist the SAO in tracking satellites. When the U.S.S.R. surprised the world by launching Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the Baker Nunn camera stations were not yet operational, making Moonwatch Program participants instrumental for initial tracking efforts of the first artificial satellite. However, one of the special cameras took the first photograph of Sputnik on October 17, and all twelve stations were fully operational by mid 1958.
  • Whipple's involvement in the tracking of subsequent satellites is discussed, along with setting up the Prairie Network, established in the 1960's to find meteorites. His relationships with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are reviewed as well. Whipple also had a great interest in continental drift and wrote a number of works on the subject.
  • In the 1960's, Whipple worked with astronomers at the University of Arizona to build the Mt. Hopkins Observatory. Dedicated in 1968, the observatory had the world's largest gamma ray detector, and with the support of Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, funding was secured to add a Multiple-Mirror Telescope. Whipple retired in 1973 but was the opening speaker at the telescope's 1979 dedication ceremony. The Mt. Hopkins Observatory was rededicated as the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in 1982, and Whipple continued to participate in research projects until 2003.
  • During his career Whipple received many honors and awards, including the Presidential Certificate of Merit in 1948, the J. Lawrence Smith Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1949, the President's Award for Distinguished Public Service in 1963, and the Leonard Medal from the Meteoritical Society in 1970. The society was founded in 1933 by Frederick Leonard and Harvey H. Nininger as the Society for Research on Meteorites but changed its name to the Meteoritical Society in 1946. Whipple had not been a charter member of the society but was later involved with the professional association and is credited with rejuvenating the society in 1959. He worked to hire additional scientists, one of whom is the interviewer, to do laboratory research at the SAO; some of her research on meteorites and mutual professional relationships are discussed with Whipple during the interview.
  • The reader can sense the tremendous enthusiasm Whipple has for his life's work throughout the interview, and his sense of humor is frequently evident in various responses to the interviewer's questions and comments.


  • Carmichael, Leonard 1898-1973
  • Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001
  • Whipple, Fred Lawrence 1906-
  • Nininger, Harvey
  • LaPaz, Lincoln
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • Prairie Meteorite Network
  • Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory
  • Mt. Hopkins Observatory
  • Harvard University
  • Harvard College Observatory
  • Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory
  • Meteoritical Society
  • Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
  • Satellite Tracking Program
  • Sputnik
  • Moonwatch Program
  • Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics


Smithsonian History Bibliography


This oral history interview transcript contains one photograph of Fred L. Whipple. A list of Selected References appears at the end of the interview.

Contained within

Meteoritics & Planetary Science Vol. 39, Number 7, Supplement 1 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Comets
  • Astrophysicists
  • Astrophysics
  • Secretaries
  • Baker-Nunn camera
  • Meteors
  • International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958
  • Artificial satellites
  • Meteorites
  • Meteoritics
  • Continental drift
  • Telescopes
  • Astronomy
  • Biography
  • Baker-Nunn Camera

Physical description

Number of pages: 15; Page numbers: A199-A213

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