Ground Control: Thomas E. Clarke Jr. ’73, G’75

An alumnus’s behind-the-scenes career at NASA yields big results.

Photo of the International Space Station, a project Thomas Clarke ’73 G’75 worked on for 10 years, taken from Orbiter Atlantis on the STS-135 flight.
Photo of the International Space Station, a project Thomas Clarke ’73 G’75 worked on for 10 years, taken from Orbiter Atlantis on the STS-135 flight.
Clarke stands at Pad A in front of the Orbiter Atlantis.
Clarke stands at Pad A in front of the Orbiter Atlantis.

Throughout his four decades at NASA, Thomas E. Clarke Jr. '73, G'75 never donned a spacesuit nor gave commands from mission control. Nonetheless, the Scranton native was a vital cog in ensuring the success of the U.S. space program.

Last year, Clarke retired from NASA after 40 years of service, the last 10 of which were spent as the COO to the CFO at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

There, he was tasked with the unheralded yet crucial responsibility of ensuring the financial viability of a long list of astronomically complex and expensive projects. Along the way, he witnessed plenty of changes, among them the agency's recent shift toward collaborating with private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing to develop innovations in space flight, aeronautics, solar energy and other technologies.

It was great, because I got to see such a transition from where it was then to where it is now. The changes are just amazing, said Clarke, a resident of Titusville, Florida. People think NASA just launches rockets and that's it. There are so many technology advancements that NASA participates in.

Launch from Scranton

Indeed, it's been a pretty good ride for a guy who had little interest in space travel at the start of his career. After graduating from West Scranton High School in 1964, Clarke enrolled at The University of Scranton for what turned out to be an abbreviated stay.

Due to a lack of money, I took some time off, he said. Next thing I knew, I was drafted.

The Army sent him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a medical laboratory specialist. During this time, he met members of Congress, high-ranking military personnel and foreign diplomats. He was on call when President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended appointments.

When his service culminated in October 1967, Clarke returned to Scranton and married his high school sweetheart, Dawna. While working five-and-a-half day weeks at her family's pickle business, William Kleinberger & Sons, he attended night school at Scranton in pursuit of his bachelor's degree in business management/ administration. He went on to get his MBA with a concentration in accounting.

As an adult student with a full-time job and a family he and his wife have two sons Clarke had little time for activities outside the classroom. He had one task in mind: to receive a first-rate education in order to support my family and secure a future for myself.

The University, he said, more than proved up to the task. Plus, it only enhanced the discipline and drive he had developed in the military.

As a guy who has always been good with numbers, he counted himself lucky to have been supported by several teachers at Scranton. I had one accounting instructor, John P. McLean, whose courses I kept taking. He said to me one day, Are you majoring in me?' Clarke said with a laugh.

Clarke briefly taught at Lackawanna Junior College before a civil service application landed him a job as a neophyte financial analyst at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in March 1976. Until that point, his most significant space-related exposure was getting up in the middle of the night to feed his then-18- day-old son and flipping on the TV to find Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon. 

Unlike the hundreds of millions eagerly anticipating the moon landing, Clarke hadn't planned to watch, indicating just how far NASA and space travel were from his mind at that time in his life.

Experiencing Space History

At Goddard, Clarke re-created the training program for newly hired accountants and financial analysts and served as a financial analyst on the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite project and the Delta Expendable Launch Vehicle Program.

In September 1979, he and his family moved to Florida when he accepted a position as a financial analyst at Kennedy Space Center. Initially, he did everything from cost analysis to budgeting for the Space Shuttle Project, which was tasked with building the launch facilities and ground support equipment for the second launch facility, Pad B.

From there, he did a lot of the financial heavy lifting on the International Space Station, from its first estimates and studies in the early 1980s to the construction of its Space Station Processing Facility at Kennedy in 1993.

Being at Kennedy, I could see all the preparing of flight hardware, supporting equipment and personnel. I dealt with project managers and technical people, he said.

People just don't know all the processes and activities that are involved in preparing and launching hardware and personnel.

Throughout that period, he met a lot of interesting people he chatted with Tom Hanks in an elevator when the actor was filming Apollo 13 and worked closely with astronauts such as Ellison Onizuka, a crew member on the doomed Challenger shuttle, which exploded in 1986.

That tragedy aside, the vast majority of what Clarke witnessed at the space center was magnificent. The stakes were high, and the hours were long, but the outcomes were awe-inspiring.

There has been nothing like seeing a shuttle orbiter up close while it is being processed in an orbiter processing facility; actually sitting in the orbiter crew seats; seeing International Space Station hardware components while they are processed for flight; watching live launches from less than four miles from the launch site; and watching astronauts come out of the crew quarters and get into a van to go to the launch pad and get into the shuttle vehicle, said Clarke. These are events that many only dream about, but I was fortunate to be a participant in these historical events.

A Career, Blessed

As the years passed, Clarke was given a succession of leadership positions at Kennedy, culminating with COO to the CFO for his final decade there. During that period, his accomplishments included improving career development opportunities for financial professionals like himself.

Clarke left NASA for good on Jan. 1, 2016. He admitted his adjustment to retired life was a bit difficult at first. The reason for that was simple: I just loved what I did, he said. To this day, I feel so much pride for what we've done, what we're doing now and what we will be doing down the road. I was very, very fortunate. My career was blessed.

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