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Jastrow attended Townsend Harris High School and was invited to attend Camp Rising Sun. He went to Columbia University for college and graduate school, where he received his A.B., A.M. and PhD in theoretical physics, in 1948. Afterwards he joined NASA when it was formed in 1958.
He was the first chairman of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Committee, which established the scientific goals for the exploration of the moon during the Apollo lunar landings. At the same time he was also the Chief of the Theoretical Division at NASA (1958–61). He became the founding director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in 1961, and served until his retirement from NASA in 1981. Concurrently he was also a Professor of Geophysics at Columbia University.
After his NASA career he became a Professor of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth College (1979–1992), and was a Member of the NASA Alumni Association. Jastrow was also a Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the George C. Marshall Institute, and Director Emeritus of Mount Wilson Observatory and Hale Solar Laboratory.
Views on controversial issues
His expressed views on creation were that although he was an "agnostic, and not a believer", it seems to him that "the curtain drawn over the mystery of creation will never be raised by human efforts, at least in the foreseeable future" due to "the circumstances of the Big Bang-the fiery holocaust that destroyed the record of the past". With the discovery of the Big Bang, Jastrow began to hold a belief that, if there was a beginning to the universe, there was also a Creator.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Jastrow said "Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover. That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact."
He was open to the possibility of extra-terrestrial life in the universe, but skeptical of the proposed alien origin of UFOs due to a lack of strong physical evidence that would support this hypothesis.
Jastrow, together with Fred Seitz and William Nierenberg, established the George C. Marshall Institute to counter the scientists who were arguing against U. S. President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, arguing for equal time in the media. This institute was later critical of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming. Jastrow acknowledged the earth was experiencing a warming trend, but claimed that the cause was likely to be natural variation.
- NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement
- Arthur S. Fleming Award for Outstanding Service in the U.S. Government.
- Columbia University Medal of Excellence
- Columbia Graduate Facilities Award to Distinguished Alumni
- Doctor of Science degree (honorary) from Manhattan College
Selected television appearances
- Hosted more than 100 CBS-TV network programs on space science
- Special guest of NBC-TV with Wernher von Braun for the Apollo–Soyuz flights
- Featured guest of the Today show on the 10th anniversary of the landing on the moon
Now we see how the astronomical evidence supports the Biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and Biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.
There is a strange ring of feeling and emotion in these reactions [of scientists to evidence that the universe had a sudden beginning]. They come from the heart whereas you would expect the judgments to come from the brain. Why? I think part of the answer is that scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon which cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money. There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the Universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event; every effect must have its cause, there is no First Cause. … This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized.
Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe? And science cannot answer these questions, because, according to the astronomers, in the first moments of its existence the Universe was compressed to an extraordinary degree, and consumed by the heat of a fire beyond human imagination. The shock of that instant must have destroyed every particle of evidence that could have yielded a clue to the cause of the great explosion.
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
Scientists have no proof that life was not the result of an act of creation, but they are driven by the nature of their profession to seek explanations for the origin of life that lie within the boundaries of natural law.— Robert Jastrow, The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe, (1981), p. 19.
- Red Giants and White Dwarfs (1967), W. W. Norton & Company, 1990 3rd edition, paperback: ISBN 0-393-85004-8
- Astronomy: Fundamentals & Frontiers (1972) John Wiley & Sons, 1984 4th edition: ISBN 0-471-89700-0, 1990 5th edition: ISBN 0-471-82795-9
- Until the Sun Dies (1977), W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-06415-8
- God And The Astronomers (1978), W. W. Norton & Company, 2000 2nd edition, paperback: ISBN 0-393-85006-4. The Big Bang theory and the argument from design. Second edition contains appendices with Roman Catholic and Jewish perspectives.
- The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe (1981) Simon & Schuster hardcover: ISBN 0-671-43308-3, Touchstone 1983 paperback: ISBN 0-671-47068-X, Oxford Univ Press 1993 paperback: ISBN 88-435-3349-5. The evolution of life and the development of the human mind. The title is from the 1937–38 Gifford Lectures by Charles Sherrington: "It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns."
- Journey to the Stars: Space Exploration—Tomorrow and Beyond (1990), Transworld Publishers, Ltd hardcover: ISBN 0-593-01908-3, Bantam paperback: ISBN 0-553-34909-0
- Various articles on astronomy and space for The New York Times, Reader's Digest, Foreign Affairs, Commentary Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and Scientific American.
- Marie Jastrow, Looking Back: The American Dream Through Immigrant Eyes, 1907–1918, (1986), W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-02348-6
- Leader U. "Message from Professor Robert Jastrow"
- "A Scientist Caught Between Two Faiths: Interview With Robert Jastrow," Christianity Today, August 6, 1982
- "The Marshall Institute – Founders". Archived from the original on July 6, 2010. Retrieved April 1, 2012.
- Oreskes, Naomi (2010), "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming" (Bloomsbury)
- Seitz, F. and Jastrow, R. (Dec 2001) Retrieved July 16, 2010 Do people cause global warming?
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