John W. Townsend, Jr.

1999 Edward A. Flinn III Award Winner

John W. Townsend, Jr., Jr., was awarded the Edward A. Flinn III Award at the AGU Spring Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on June 2, 1999, in Boston, Massachusetts. The award recognizes individuals who personify the Union’s motto “unselfish cooperation in research” through their facilitating, coordinating, and implementing activities.


“John W. (Jack) Townsend, the 1999 recipient of the American Geophysical Union’s Edward A. Flinn III Award, is one the few members of the AGU whose career has taken them from frontier geophysical research to the highest levels of geoscience management but who has always retained his close identification with the Union as a member, an active committee participant, and a financial contributor. Indeed, Jack’s continued close attachment to the Union has allowed him throughout his professional career to anticipate the direction of geophysical research and then to act decisively to promote and facilitate members’ research in the geophysical sciences.

“Throughout his career, Jack Townsend has excelled at visionary institutional leadership, innovating new institutions to meet new national challenges and opportunities, and dedicated professional management that always enabled researchers and engineers to accomplish objectives that helped maintain U.S. leadership in science and technology. Jack played a crucial role in furthering the use of advanced technology, especially space technology, to facilitate the ability of the research community to advance understanding in the geophysical sciences significantly.

“Following completion of academic degrees at Williams College and 4 years after his active service in the Second World War (he was a flight instructor and a pilot in the Pacific), Jack joined the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), where he immediately became centrally involved in the very early studies of the upper atmosphere using V-2, Viking, and Aerobee rockets. His research work on upper atmosphere physics was centered on the first mass spectroscopic measurements of atmospheric constituents at the high altitudes at which the new rocket technologies allowed his innovative instrumentation (employing time-of-flight techniques for the first time) to reach. Jack’s many publications during this first decade of his career not only included new results and understanding of the Earth’s upper atmosphere but also contained the beginnings of his career-long engineering contributions to rocketry (and later satellites) as platforms for research.

“When the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed from the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), Jack moved with his branch from NRL to the fledgling Goddard Space Flight Center where, since he was one of the most senior individuals knowledgeable in space flight technologies, he was immediately thrust into the role of helping to formulate the new science and engineering activities of the agency. From this time on, Jack’s principal contributions to geophysical research were to ensure that the opportunities for cutting edge efforts were available to the personnel in the organizations that he led. At Goddard, Jack initiated the developments of in-house capabilities for small and medium scientific spacecraft in the 1960s and supervised the beginnings of the development of the Delta rocket, which has played such an important role for 30 years in the launching of science missions into orbit. A key contribution to international space science was made when Jack, together with Hugh Dryden and Donald Hornig, negotiated the first bilateral space science agreement with the former Soviet Union.

“For much of the 1970s, Jack served as the Associate Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with responsibilities that defined the science and services agency that was built from the old Environmental Sciences Services Administration. Research enterprises that he help create and nurture included the Weather Bureau, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Data Services, and the overall Research Laboratories. When Jack moved to industry in 1977 in various roles of increasing responsibility, he continued his involvement in facilitating research opportunities in the geosciences. He was responsible at Fairchild for the Multi-Mission Modular Spacecraft, the platform of which formed the basis for geophysical investigations involving the ocean (TOPEX), the Earth (Landsat 4) and the Sun (Solar Maximum Mission). The last 3 years of Jack’s career were spent as the Director of the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he had overall responsibility for the Earth and space sciences. During his tenure, there were 17 major space flight projects in progress, as well as total operational responsibility for all of NASA’s Earth satellites.

“Jack was active for years in the AGU’s Budget and Finance Committee, helping to steer the Union along the path of strong solvency that it can be so proud of. He was also very active in the committee that worked and planned for the new Union headquarters on Florida Avenue, including tackling the multitude of issues that evolved from the environmental cleanup caused by the old service station that formerly occupied a portion of the site.

“It is most fitting that the American Geophysical Union recognizes, with the Flinn Award, Jack Townsend’s 50-year illustrious career in ‘facilitating, coordinating, and implementing activities’ that have been of huge benefit to the geoscience research community.””

—LOUIS J. LANZEROTTI, Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, Murray Hill, N.J


“I’m really pleased, thanks to Lou, my wife, and old friends, to be here and to be able to use this occasion to give a message that is important to me, although I realize I may be preaching to the choir.

“When I was in high school and college before World War II, I thought I wanted to be a chemist. When I came back from active duty, I found I had amassed enough credits in the Armed Forces’ college programs to skip my sophomore year, that is if I became a physicist. That was fine with me, because I loved electronics. I did my graduate work building a mass spectrometer in the basement of an old brick physics building at Williams College. I worked by myself, happily alone.

“Through a series of unplanned happenings, I took my first job in 1949 at the U.S. Navy Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., where they had just started an upper atmosphere research program using the V-2 and, later, other rockets. However, our experiments were team efforts and involved some interdisciplinary work between teams. Goodbye to individual research for me! Soon the International Geophysical Year (IGY) was being planned and we were involved in international and, in some cases, interdisciplinary programs and projects.

“As you know, Sputnik was a USSR project for the IGY, and its flight (along with our problems at NRL) led to the formation of NASA and the space race with the Russians. I joined up along with my branch at NRL.

“From that time on in NASA almost everything was teamwork. Interdisciplinary science became more important as well as international collaboration. It remains that way today.

“The message then is that the Earth and space sciences we study cover a very large and complex system. The job is too big to tackle without immense data-collecting projects done with interdisciplinary science in mind. This collection will only be practical with international cooperation and collaboration on the ground, on the sea, and in the air and space above. Fortunately, our science and technology is ‘good’ in the sense that they seek to help understanding as well as people, in many cases directly. There will always be a place for individual research, but individuals will probably have to have access to data of a sort that they cannot easily acquire themselves.

“I didn’t know Edward A. Flinn III well personally. I believe he came to NASA after I had left for NOAA and died shortly after I returned to NASA from private industry. I did know of his leadership in the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) and his scientific and international leadership in lithospheric research.

“I am honored to receive this award in his memory.”

—JOHN W. TOWNSEND JR., Cabin John, Md.