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2002 Distinguished Graduate Award

Mr. James R. Dempsey '43

During his lifetime, James R. Dempsey has made an extraordinary series of contributions to America’s national security. One of 164 members of his war-shortened West Point class to earn pilot’s wings before graduation, he soon put his skills to the test flying dangerous, low-level, unarmed and unescorted photographic reconnaissance missions along the beaches of Normandy prior to the D-Day Invasion. Later, he again was put to the test on a far greater scale as director of the Convair/General Dynamics team charged with developing the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Not only did he bring this complex project to successful launch ahead of schedule, but he also provided the expertise that adapted the Atlas to launch our first astronaut into space following the Soviet Union’s success with Sputnik and their first cosmonaut. Even later, with AVCO, he would contribute to the successful development of re-entry systems for the Minuteman One missile and the heat shields for the Apollo return module.
After graduation, Lieutenant Dempsey completed P-38 training before joining the 34th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron in England. While completing 43 combat missions, he advanced from flight commander to squadron commander and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for taking the first low-altitude photos of the Siegfried Line. After the war, he received a master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering while a member of the first Air Force guided missile course at the University of Michigan. He then served as chief of guided missile projects in the Air Force Office of Research and Development and executive officer for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Development. In this latter position, he was involved in the Air Force reorganization that created the Air Research and Development Command, separating research and development of advanced technology from logistics. He then was one of the first Air Force officers to arrive at Patrick Air Force Base and place his imprint upon the seminal development of Cape Canaveral as a center for American missile technology. As operations officer for the missile test range, he had primary responsibility for the establishment of down-range monitoring stations and the installation of advanced instrumentation.
In 1953, he joined Convair, just a short while before the Department of Defense decided upon a national effort to develop the Atlas missile in 1954. Assigned as director of the Atlas program, Dempsey led the Convair/General Dynamics team that developed all facets of America’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. It would be the largest and most demanding technological task ever assigned to a private corporation. Because of a daunting time schedule, the Atlas missile was developed concurrently with the construction of eleven bases across the United States. Due to his managerial skills and singular devotion to mission accomplishment, the project was completed ahead of schedule and within budget tolerances. By 1960, the Strategic Air Command was able to conduct the first Atlas operational test launch. In that same year, the Collier Trophy, presented annually by the National Aeronautics Association for the greatest achievement in astronautics in America, was awarded to the United States Air Force and the Convair Division of General Dynamics. Jim Dempsey, now president of Convair/Astronautics, accepted the award on behalf of his company for accomplishments “that were vital to the security and space exploration needs of the United States and the free world” from President Eisenhower.
During the development of the Atlas, Dempsey also had the foresight to visualize its potential as a launch vehicle for both manned and unmanned space flights. When, following the success of its Sputnik launch in 1957, the Soviets launched a cosmonaut into space in 1961, the United States was able to send its own astronaut into space just ten months later — in a Mercury capsule aboard an Atlas missile adapted for the space program. In 1965, the Astronautics and Convair divisions of General Dynamics were combined as Convair, and Dempsey was named president. His most notable contribution in this capacity was the development of Centaur, the world’s first liquid hydrogen/oxygen space vehicle, as a second stage for the Atlas and Titan missiles.
In 1966, he joined AVCO and in 1968 was named vice president of its Government Products Group. At AVCO, his most significant projects were the re-entry systems for Minuteman One and the heat shield for the Apollo return module. Just before departing in 1975, he fostered the development of a boron fiber production process. He then continued to be active in personal business pursuits and served on the boards of several corporations and mutual funds. As vice president and, later, president of his class, he has been a staunch supporter of West Point and was instrumental in the development of the Flight Memorial, the Constitution Corner, and the 50th Anniversary Howitzer for the Class of January 1943.
In recognition of his bravery in combat, his contributions to missile technology and the defense of the United States, and his limitless vision that helped launch our exploration of space and victory in the Cold War, the Association of Graduates takes great pride in presenting the 2002 Distinguished Graduate Award to James Raymon Dempsey, USMA Class of January 1943.

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