|Professor Byron Tapley: A Pioneer of Aerospace Education and Research|
|Written by Administrator|
Many of Dr. Byron Tapley’s students – whether they worked at NASA, in the military, in international space agencies or in academia themselves – have already retired, yet he is still actively working after more than half a century. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in Tapley’s career.
The list of his professional associations, publications (over 150), awards and accomplishments, including holding the Clare Cockrell Williams Centennial Chair in Engineering, could keep a person occupied on a trip to the moon and back, and high among them are his tremendous contributions to the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics. From heading up the Center for Space Research (CSR) since its inception in 1981 to overseeing the first operational NASA Earth System Pathfinder to leading the department into the space age, Tapley’s dedication to his research and to the Cockrell School is tough to match.
With an interest in space since early high school, Tapley earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at UT in 1955, before the aerospace program existed. After earning his MS in Engineering Mechanics in 1957 and his PhD in Engineering Mechanics two years later, Tapley was approached by then-department chair M.J. Thompson to see if he would help develop a course on space. But just a course was not enough for Tapley; he wanted to see a whole sequence of courses that would teach the range of skills necessary for space exploration. So leading up to and during his tenure as department chair from 1966 to 1977, Tapley guided the department from an aeronautics program to an aerospace program during one of the most dramatic decades in space exploration.
“It was an exceptionally interesting time to launch an academic aerospace program as our country was racing to the moon,” Tapley said.
Though Tapley had thought himself too young at age 33 to be the chair, then-Dean John McKetta made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Over the next decade, Tapley brought on board some of the department’s most accomplished researchers and instructors, increasing the number of full-time faculty members from six to 30. He also worked hard to recruit top graduate students like William F. Powers (’66 MS ASE, ’68 PhD EM), now a retired Vice President of Research for Ford Motor Company and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
“It was an unbelievably exciting time in space research with every day bringing new changes,” Powers said. While Powers was working at NASA-Huntsville, Tapley convinced him to come to UT instead of nearby choices like the University of Alabama and Auburn, and helped him procure funding for his PhD. Powers said he emulated Tapley’s teaching methods later as a professor at the University of Michigan, a NASA consultant for the space shuttle program and the leader of research at Ford.
“Professor Tapley would start class with a lecture and end with all of us working as a team to figure out the latest technical paper,” Powers said. “We were learning while doing, and Dr. Tapley gave us the confidence to explore any new topic.”
Tapley’s first PhD student, Vernon Lee (’54 BS AeE , ’55 MS AeE, ’63 PhD ASE), agreed that Tapley’s style was inspiring.
“He was always interested in exactly what you were doing and eager to share his enormous depth and span of knowledge,” said Lee, now a retired Vice President of Lockheed Martin (formerly General Dynamics) who spent much of his career selling the F-16 internationally. “On the other hand, he pretty much left it up to you to decide what to do. Dr. Tapley gave his students the tools and freedom to think for themselves.”
After stepping down as department chair in 1977, it was only a few years before Tapley, in collaboration with NASA, established UT’s Center for Space Research to conduct research in orbit determination, space geodesy, the Earth’s environment, exploration of the solar system and the scientific applications of space systems data. Research conducted through CSR programs has touched nearly every facet imaginable of the Earth and human interaction with it. From questions related to fisheries and agriculture to mapping ocean circulation and tracking the environmental impacts of oil spills like the Deep Water Horizon spill this past summer, CSR conducts cutting-edge research in nearly a dozen areas.
Tapley joked that it may be habit that brings him to work each day, but ultimately he realizes he can’t walk away from so many exciting developments continually going on under his supervision.
The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, funded by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, has been a centerpiece of CSR study since its launch in March 2002. Consisting of two satellites flying in formation 310 miles above Earth, GRACE makes detailed measurements of the Earth’s gravity field by relying on Newton’s law that objects receive a stronger gravitational tug from more massive objects.
Since the Earth’s gravity varies from one place to another, depending on planetary features like deep craters under the Antarctic ice or alterations in the ocean floor, the satellites respond to the micrometer-scale variations in the gravitational pull of mass changes on Earth. Those variations are reflected in the distance between the twin satellites, ranging from 137 to 220 kilometers apart. The GRACE satellites’ ultra-precise measurements of mass flux, whether high on mountaintops or deep under the ocean’s depths, have provided invaluable knowledge about changes in Earth’s natural systems.
“Almost every day we find a new application for GRACE” Tapley said. “We’re working to monitor the major flood zones around the world so we can predict and manage flooding.”
Just one example of what GRACE can do is the insight it provides regarding rising ocean levels.
“We know how much the ocean is rising. The question is how much mass is going into it from melting ice and how much is heat coming in from the sun,” Tapley said. “GRACE can tell you that.”
Though originally planned as a five-year project, GRACE keeps on kicking, much like its Principal Investigator, Tapley.
As a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a recipient of the AIAA Mechanics and Control of Flight Award, the Astronomical Society Dirk Brower Award and the AGU Charles Whitten medal, Tapley has also supervised hundreds of graduate students and had the unique opportunity to see the Aerospace Department become a top-ranked international program attracting more and more exceptional students.
"The preparation of students coming into our program is markedly stronger now both at the undergraduate and graduate level,” said Tapley, who attributes the change to two sources. “One is the high school programs’ preparation for college, and another is that the university does a much better job of recruiting the best of the best.”
And with professors like Tapley guiding so many of those students toward the future of aerospace, they’re sure to remain the best of the best in the industry.