Roy Tharpe ’64 estimates he has witnessed or assisted with more than 2,500 launches, everything from communications satellites to space shuttles. “I still get butterflies,” said Tharpe, who began his nearly 50 years of service to the space program in 1963 as a data analyst. Probably none were as intense, though, as the near-miss with a rocket that inspired him to work for NASA. As a Western Carolina student on summer break, he had a job with a surveying team working on a launchpad. “At that point in time, we were allowed to be within four miles of the launchpad,” said Tharpe. “We were taking grade elevations when they launched a Titan rocket. When it lifted off, I noticed the pointy end wasn’t going up. It was going sideways, straight at me. It was no more than a mile and a half from us when it exploded. The heat wave hit me. The sound wave hit me and almost knocked me over. Stuff was flying everywhere. That’s when I decided I needed to continue to do well in math so I could help these guys.
“Tharpe returned in the fall to Western Carolina, where he and his brother, Danny Tharpe ’64, were on the basketball team. Danny played point guard, starting for four years, leading the Catamounts to three 20-win seasons and the championship game in a national tournament. Roy played benchwarmer, he said lightheartedly. “I was more studious than athletic,” said Tharpe, who double majored in psychology and mathematics. As a psychology major, he conducted experiments including whether images such as concentric circles or centerfolds stayed longer on a person’s retina after different amounts of exposure. As a mathematics major, he used Western Carolina’s brand new IBM computer to process the data from his psychology research. The experience prepared him for his first job at NASA assessing and trending flight vehicle measurements, including temperatures, pressures and the status of numerous valves.
With tension mounting in the space race to put a man on the moon, Tharpe became a key member of a 2,000-person Apollo ground system team. Their tasks included moving the crawler transporter that took equipment from the vehicle assembly building to the launchpad. “I did not mind working 12 or 14 hours a day for weeks at a time without a day off to run a test or conduct a launch activity. Human space flight is such a unique thing,” said Tharpe.
“We did not realize then how the accomplishments of the Apollo program would affect the quality of life on Earth,” said Tharpe. Technology developed to map the moon accelerated development of the CT scan used in detecting diseases such as breast cancer. Technology developed to construct scopes that worked at extreme temperatures helped advance technology used today in heart surgery. “It’s amazing,” said Tharpe.
In the transition period after the Apollo missions, Tharpe was particularly grateful to be part of NASA as scores of contractors faced layoffs. “It was a ghost town,” he said. “There were people just walking away from their homes with the key in the door.” He went on to work with experts planning the reorganization of Kennedy Space Center for the shuttle program, coordinate ground operations for the first shuttle test program, develop the approach and landing site for the shuttle at Edwards Air Force Base in California and support construction of Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. When an emergency alternate landing site was required for the third shuttle mission, he traveled to New Mexico to assist. When Tharpe returned to work at Kennedy Space Center, he was responsible for the processing of classified and unclassified payloads and the payload changeout room at the launchpad. His positions and responsibilities continued to increase, and within a decade he was named NASA associate director for shuttle operations. In 1996, he took on a new mission, leaving NASA for Boeing to serve as launch site manager for the International Space Station. “The focus was how to live off of this Earth so that one day we can colonize on the moon or go to Mars,” he said.
In 2007, he became director of space and science at Northrop Grumman, where he was later appointed president of Space Gateway Support. The company is charged with providing protective services at Kennedy Space Center, from around-the-clock security guards to SWAT teams ready to respond in the event of an aborted launch.
In honor of his many achievements with the space program, he was recently bestowed the National Space Club’s Dr. Kurt H. Debus Award, named for Kennedy Space Center’s first director to honor significant contributions in Florida to American aerospace efforts. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said it was prestigious award that “could not have a more outstanding and fitting recipient.”
“The Soviets shocked us with Sputnik, and they shocked us again in ’61 by putting up (Soviet cosmonaut Yuri) Gagarin,” said Nelson. “The great space race was on, and Roy became a part of it right here in his native Brevard County.”