Dr. Abolghassem Ghaffari, who helped put man on the moon as a mathematician with the U.S. Space Agency, marked his 100th birthday in Los Angeles on June 15th, 2007.
Ghaffari was born in Tehran. He was educated at the Darolfonoun School before going to France in 1929 with a full scholarship to study mathematics and physics at Nancy University. He received his doctorate from the Sorbonne. In 1936 he worked at the Paris Observatory on celestial mechanics, the foundation of his later work calculating how much power was needed to get a rocket into orbit around the moon without overshooting.
Ghaffari returned to Iran in 1937 to teach at the University of Tehran. He was drafted into military service from 1938 to 1941 where he directed field work leveling parts of northern Tehran to prepare it for the army.
In 1950, by invitation of Harvard University and as a Fulbright Scholar, he worked as a research associate to lecture on Differential Equations and to continue his research on Gas Dynamics. Dr. Ghaffari and Dr. Mohsen Hashrudi, were among the first Iranians to become Fulbright Scholars. Hashrudi's area of study was also mathematics at Harvard at the same time Ghaffari was there.
After the war, he frequently traveled to Britain and the United States on research. In the early 1950s, the proud Iranian worked alongside Albert Einstein in Princeton's Institute For Advanced Study on the Unified Field Theory of Gravitation and Electromagnetism. Einstein was very curious about Iran and asked Ghaffari, 'so how did Persia become Iran?'
Robert Oppenheimer was director of the Institute at the time and befriended Ghaffari. The first time Ghaffari met Oppenheimer, when finding out that Ghaffari was Iranian asked him if he knew Dr. Kamal Genab, who was a physics student of Oppenheimer's at Cal Tech. Ghaffari was invited to the White House when President Johnson gave Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963. President Kennedy was supposed to have given the award to Oppenheimer, but he was assassinated the week before the ceremony. 'I felt pity for Dr. Oppenheimer, because his guilt and smoking had taken a real toll on him over the years. He was sick (with cancer) and was hobbling around with a cane. I could feel the end was near,' Ghaffari said. Oppenheimer died of throat cancer four years later at the age of 62.
In 1956, Ghaffari moved permanently to the United States to take a position with the U.S. National Bureau of Standards in the mathematics division. Part of his work there involved calculations of the motion of artificial earth satellites.
In 1962, the Bureau of Standards granted Ghaffari permission to start working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a part-time consultant for the Goddard Space Flight Center. He was the first Iranian to work for NASA. In 1964, three years into the manned space program and when his projects were finished at the Bureau, he became a full-time staff scientist at NASA, where he worked on Apollo missions 11 and 12. His chief responsibility was to determine out how to get a rocket to the moon. He had to account for the gravity of the earth and the gravity of the moon and calculate how many and how powerful mid-course corrections would be required to place a rocket into orbit around the moon. An error would send the rocket crashing into the moon or soaring passed it into deep space. For the manned space program, he also had to get the rocket back again.
Ghaffari and his colleagues on the Apollo missions were invited to the White House by President Nixon in 1969, where they were given medals for their service on Apollo 11. At the event, footage of the successful landing was aired, a reporter was there and asked Ghaffari, 'Did this really happen or was this shot in Texas?' Ghaffari was too shocked at his comment to respond. 'I never got around to asking him what media outlet he worked for,' Ghaffari said.
Ghaffari was awarded in recognition of his exceptional contributions to Aerospace education during the first decade of space exploration in 1970 by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
He retired from NASA in 1972, three years after the Apollo program placed the first men on the moon and got them back safely.
In 1998, Ghaffari was asked by the Millenium Committee what his prediction was for the biggest scientific event of the millenium. Ghaffari responded, 'If NASA's budget doesn't get cut, a manned mission to Mars will occur by 2010.'
Ghaffari was awarded the distinguished scholar award for outstanding achievement in the advancement of science by the Association of Professors and Scholars of Iranian Heritage (APSIH) in 2005.
Ghaffari's mind is very lucid and in much better condition than his body. When asked about how it feels to be 100, he said, 'I'm not happy, because I can't work in an office anymore. I do get to do some independent research at home though.'
Beverly Hills mayor Jimmy Delshad will be giving Ghaffari a special certificate honoring his birthday from the city of Beverly Hills. Ghaffari plans to mark his 100th birthday at home with his wife and daughters.
Happy Birthday Dr. Ghaffari!
For more info on Dr. Ghaffari and his achievements, please go to www.ghaffaris.com.
Photos 1 & 2: Dr. Abolghassem Ghaffari
Photo 3: Dr. Ghaffari was honored at the APSIH event (left to right): Dr. Najmedin Meshkati, Dr. Ghaffari (seated), Dr. Jamal Abedi, professor of Education at UCLA, and Dr. Firouz Naderi of JPL, who headed the U.S. Mars exploration program.
Photo 4: Dr. Abolghassem Ghaffari today at 100