August 1, 2018

portrait of byron tapleyByron Tapley, Professor Emeritus of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, has been selected to receive the 2018 NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, NASA’s highest honor awarded to any non-government individual who has personally contributed to NASA’s advancement of the United States’ interests.

The annual award is given to an individual whose achievements have made “a profound or indelible impact on NASA mission success, and therefore, the contribution is so extraordinary that other forms of recognition by NASA would be inadequate.” Tapley was cited “for distinguished service and leadership to NASA in the creation and advancement of space geodesy, and for the education and mentoring of young engineers.”

For over 60 years, Tapley has been a researcher, educator and visionary who has been recognized for his significant contributions to the field of space geodesy—the scientific discipline measuring and representing the Earth—and aerospace engineering education.

Tapley is widely respected by the international research community for his groundbreaking work, which includes increasing the accuracy of nearly every data collected from Earth-orbiting satellites with his visionary engineering methods and applications using dynamics theory, laser ranging and the emergent Global Positioning Satellite system. He has contributed to the success of many historic NASA missions, including TOPEX/Poseidon and the Gravity Research and Climate Experiment (GRACE), of which he was the lead principal investigator. His advancement of the discipline of geodesy from space is used in many of today’s studies of the Earth in the areas of geodynamics, geophysics, oceanography and climate change, all of which have benefited from the revolutionary advances in the field of satellite geodesy.

In the realm of aerospace engineering education and research, Tapley, who holds the Clare Cockrell Williams Centennial Chair Emeritus in Engineering, has interacted with thousands of students and supervised hundreds more since 1960. He served as department chair of the Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics department from 1966 – 1977 and in 1981 in collaboration with NASA, he established UT Austin’s Center for Space Research (CSR) 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. He served as the CSR Director for 46 years, during which research conducted through the center was at the forefront of many areas of national interest, including mapping ocean circulation, tracking the changes in global water resources and mitigating the environmental impact of events such as Hurricane Harvey and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Tapley’s accomplishments are numerous and include over 300 published refereed journal articles, professional and honorary society memberships, national and international advisory committee service and many honors and awards. A few of his career awards include election to the National Academy of Engineering and reception of  the American Geophysical Union Charles A. Whitten Medal, which recognizes outstanding achievements in research on the form and dynamics of the Earth and planets, the American Astronomical Society Dirk Brower Award, the honorary doctorate from Delft University of Technology, NASA’s Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, and the William T. Pecora Award to the GRACE science team for scientists’ achieving excellence in Earth observation.

In the justification for this award, NASA writes, “Thanks to the many significant contributions by Dr. Tapley to both our science and engineering communities, the legacy of NASA as a pathfinder in determining and measuring how our Earth systems interact and change will most assuredly endure.”

Tapley was presented with the award on Aug. 2 at the NASA Administrator’s Agency Honor Awards Ceremony held in Houston, TX at the NASA Johnson Space Center.