James Robert Thompson, Jr – Obituary

By  | November 8, 2017 | Filed under: Laughlin Service Funeral Home, Obituaries

 James Robert Thompson, Jr., 81, passed away Tuesday. He was born in Greenville, SC, the eldest son of the late James Robert Thompson, Sr., and Mildred Morgan Thompson. He graduated from Druid Hills High School in Atlanta, GA in 1954, and was awarded a Bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1958, followed by a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Florida in 1963. He also completed all course work at the University of Alabama toward a Ph.D. in Fluid Mechanics.

Mr. Thompson served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy from 1958-1960, and was stationed as an administrative officer in the Atlantic Fleet.

He began his professional career at Pratt-Whitney, West Palm Beach, FL as a development engineer. In 1963, he joined the research and development team at the Marshall Space Flight Center as a systems engineer, responsible for component design and performance analysis associated with the J-2 engine for Saturn Apollo launch vehicles. In 1966, he moved to the Space Engine Section in the Propulsion & Vehicle Engineering Laboratory and became chief of the section in 1968. In 1969, as Chief of the Man/Systems Integration Branch in the Astronautics Laboratory, he managed the design, test and integration engineering for the interface between man and machines that was essential to the development of Skylab.

In 1974, Mr. Thompson was chosen to manage the Space Shuttle Main Engine Project, the most technologically challenging element of the Space Shuttle. He was responsible for the development and operation of the most advanced liquid propulsion rocket engine ever developed. He served in that position almost from the inception of early development testing on the Space Shuttle Main Engine through the initial Shuttle flights.

He accepted an invitation from Princeton University to join its faculty as Deputy Director for Technical Operations at its Plasma Physics Laboratory in 1983, where he specialized in fusion energy research.

Following the failure of the Shuttle 51-L Mission in January 1986, NASA mobilized its best talent to support the Presidential Commission appointed to investigate the failure. Mr. Thompson responded to the call to return to NASA on a furlough from the University, and played a prominent role in the investigation, leading the effort in a dual assignment as Vice Chairman of the Task Force and Leader of the Accident Analysis Team.

In September 1986, he again responded to a call from NASA and left Princeton University to return to NASA as Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center to direct a major effort to return the Space Shuttle to safe space flight. Mr. Thompson initiated the largest cooperative effort in the history of NASA. His aggressive approach to and oversight of the program inspired the recovery team and demanded their best efforts. The redesigned Solid Rocket Booster and all other elements of the propulsion system successfully withstood every test, including the ultimate test of the flawless launch of the STS-26 mission on September 29, 1986.

In July 1989, Mr. Thompson was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, Deputy Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He served as the second ranking official with NASA, participating in all matters pertaining to the management of the United States Civilian Space Program. This program encompassed manned space flight, the development of the Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, aeronautics, and space science and exploration. He retired from NASA in November 1991, and joined Orbital Sciences Corporation.

During Mr. Thompson’s tenure at Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital), he served as Chief Technical Officer from 1991 to 1993; Executive Vice President and General Manager, Launch Systems Group, from 1993 to 1999; and as President and Chief Operating Officer from 1999 to April 2011. He then served as Senior Advisor beginning in May 2011 until his retirement in 2013. In his positions with Orbital, Mr. Thompson directed engineering and manufacturing activities leading to over 350 successful satellite, rocket and related space missions. In 2012, Orbital established the J. R. Thompson Leadership Award to recognize the company’s outstanding leaders.

Mr. Thompson was the recipient of many prestigious space industry awards, which include: International Academy of Astronautics Award to Space Shuttle Team Engineers & Managers; 1991 Holley Medalist, The American Society of Mechanical Engineers; John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award, American Astronautical Society; NASA’s Distinguished Service Medals; Presidential Rank of Distinguished Service; Dr. Wernher Von Braun Award for Excellence in Space Program Management, AIAA; Goddard Memorial Trophy awarded to Space Shuttle Return-to-Flight Team, National Space Club; Holger N. Toftoy Award, AIAA; Charter Inductee, Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame; Distinguished Service Award, Huntsville, Alabama Chamber of Commerce; Honorary Ph.D., Doctorate of Science, University of Alabama/Huntsville; first Wernher Von Braun Memorial Trophy, National Space Club; Distinguished Public Service Medal for his role in 51-L; Presidential Rank of Meritorious Executive; and NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal for his role in Skylab.

J. R. Thompson was an internationally-recognized propulsion expert who possessed exceptional technical and team motivational skills.

He was a member of the First United Methodist Church, Huntsville, and the Huntsville Rotary Club. In his retirement, he enjoyed keeping abreast of all current events, reading, playing bridge, and spending time with his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as his many friends and NASA peers.

He was preceded in death by his brother, Bruce Thompson, MD, and his wife, Carol. Survivors include his wife, Sherry Gray Thompson; sons, James R. Thompson III (Margie) and Scott Thompson, Decatur; daughter, Paige Moore, Decatur; grandsons, James R. Thompson IV (Melanie) Huntsville, Samuel Thompson (Tara) Decatur, and Ashford Rowe, Atlanta, GA; granddaughters, Lou Ellen Schweers (Christian) and Susan Moore, Decatur, and Sara Douglas Thompson, Birmingham; great-grandchildren, J. Robert V and Madeline Thompson, Huntsville, and Foster and Jack Thompson, Decatur, and Olivia Schweers, Birmingham; stepsons, John McEwen (Tracie), David Gray, Huntsville, and Paul Gray (Grace) Franklin, TN; stepdaughter, Carla McEwen, Birmingham; step-granddaughters, Katherine McEwen, Huntsville, Aubrey Gray, Franklin, TN; step-grandson, Hunter McEwen, Huntsville; and brother, William Thompson (Martha), Atlanta, GA.

Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, November 13 at First United Methodist Church. The funeral will follow at the church with the Rev. Coy Hallmark officiating.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to First United Methodist Church or a favorite charity.

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