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

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  • Fred Whipple's Empire explores the forces and drives that brought two astronomical institutions together-the Astrophysical Observatory of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts-to become the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the early 1970s, one of the largest institutions devoted to astronomy and space science in the world. Astronomer Fred Lawrence Whipple was key in its transformation process, initiated in 1955 by Harvard astronomer Donald Menzel working in concert with Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael and Harvard Dean McGeorge Bundy. 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.
  • This book examines 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. We 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.


  • Whipple, Fred Lawrence 1906-
  • Menzel, Donald Howard 1901-
  • Carmichael, Leonard 1898-1973
  • Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001
  • Harvard University
  • Harvard College Observatory
  • Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
  • Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory
  • Satellite Tracking Program
  • Project Celescope
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Smithsonian History Bibliography

Citation information

Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge Vol. number


DeVorkin is a senior curator of astronomy & space sciences at the National Air and Space Museum

Contact information

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




  • International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958
  • Astrophysicists
  • Astrophysics
  • Geodesy
  • Telescopes
  • Space sciences
  • Astronomy and astrophysics
  • Astronomy


First edition

Physical description

Number of pages: 418; Page numbers: 1-401

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