Family remembers Tom Armstrong, longtime KU physics professor and researcher for NASA, as ‘devoted’ teacher who led by example
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
As a teenager, Tom Armstrong and his friends would get together on his family’s Atchison farm to shoot model rockets into the sky.
Later, as a college student, Armstrong dreamed of entering NASA’s astronaut training program. “The problem was, he was too tall,” Armstrong’s wife, Jeanette, recalls now. “So, he was eliminated from the pool from day one.”
Height and imperfect eyesight aside, Armstrong would make it into space someday — at least figuratively. The longtime University of Kansas professor and researcher — Armstrong was heavily involved with several NASA projects, including the Mariner Mars missions of the 1970s and the Saturn Cassini mission in 1998 — died peacefully June 2 after a long battle with dementia. He was 76.
The last several years of his life, Jeanette Armstrong said, marked a departure from the decades of hard work that defined Tom’s career. Because of his work with NASA, the physics professor traveled a lot, remembers daughter Elizabeth Armstrong.
So, she said, “A lot of his parenting was by the model that he set — the hard work, the integrity, the passion, the devotion to scholarly pursuits.”
“He loved science, and he worked a lot,” said Elizabeth, who described her father as being “devoted” to his students at KU. “He was always talking about his students and his students’ successes and his students getting jobs and going off to graduate school.”
Armstrong was born on Nov. 24, 1941, in Atchison, home to the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart. He attended a one-room schoolhouse before graduating from Atchison High School in 1958 and attending KU, where he met his future wife, Jeanette Fry. The couple married shortly after Armstrong’s graduation (he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics) in 1962.
After receiving his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa, later taking on postdoctoral appointments at that school and at England’s Culham Lab, Armstrong returned to KU in 1968. He continued his teaching and research career in KU’s department of physics and astronomy until retiring as a professor emeritus in 2003, after which he worked as a full-time researcher at Fundamental Technologies, LLC.
Despite his ambitious nature, Armstrong was also “goofy” and “playful,” Elizabeth remembers, indulging his students’ tendency to play pranks in the lab.
“The guy was a workaholic,” Elizabeth remembers. “He worked all the time, but at the same time, he loved ‘Caddyshack’ and ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
Like many men of his generation, Armstrong was thoroughly devoted to his career, leaving the primary parenting responsibilities to his wife, said Elizabeth, whose brother, Stuart, works as a welder in Lawrence.
But he and Jeanette led by example, Elizabeth said.
“They just had a relationship with very deep respect, deep partnership, working as a team, collaborating on every aspect of life,” Elizabeth said of her parents. “My father was able to communicate to me a very deep respect for women and women’s intelligence and capacities, through not only how he treated my mother but how excited he was to work with women students in physics and how important he felt it was that women did physics.”
Armstrong was also a huge admirer of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. “He just thought she was amazing, and very much idolized her,” Elizabeth said.
Between 1982 and 1987, Ride was married to Steve Hawley, a former astronaut and current professor of physics and astronomy at KU. Hawley was among the many students Armstrong mentored in his time at KU, Elizabeth said.
“There’s an awful lot of people who attribute to him their success and their careers,” agreed Jeanette.
“One of the things he was considering doing in retirement was setting out on this worldwide trip to see his students,” she added. “Of course, we never got that done, but they’re all over the world.”
Armstrong never made it into space, either. But if you’d asked him if he’d sign up for a commercial flight to Mars, the first of which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk expects to launch in 2024, “he would say, ‘in a minute,'” Jeanette said.
Over the course of his prolific research career, Armstrong worked on several unmanned space-flight projects for NASA, including the Voyager, Galileo and Ulysses missions to the outer solar system, as well as the IMP, Explorer and ACE series of earth-orbiting spacecraft.
Armstrong managed KU’s Space Physics Laboratory for 20 years, also supervising departmental computing for 15 years.
“I think in some ways his legacy is really related to just the enormous success of all the projects, the unmanned space exploration projects that he was involved with,” Elizabeth said.
Perhaps the most important work Armstrong ever did was on the Voyager 1, which made history in 2013 as the first humanmade object to cross the heliopause and enter the interstellar medium, leaving the solar system.
“There were of course tons of scientists on that project, and he was just one of very, very many people working on this big collaborative project,” Elizabeth said. “But yet, to be part of something that is utterly unique, that mankind has never done before — it’s really kind of cool.”
A funeral for Armstrong is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at Lawrence’s Warren-McElwain Mortuary, 120 W. 13th St., with a reception to follow at Maceli’s Banquet Hall, 1301 New Hampshire St. In lieu of flowers, Armstrong’s family asks that contributions be made to KU Endowment in support of physics and astronomy faculty.