Troy High School Graduate Involved in Early Space Program; Helped Develop Rocket "Brain"
By Judy Deeter
TROY - The history of Troy is filled with stories related to aviation. Local residents are familiar with tales related to WACO (the Weaver Aircraft Company), B.F. Goodrich Company and pioneers of the field such as Clayton Brukner and Freddie Lund. Some aviation stories, however, are not well-known or forgotten. Such is that of Troy High School class of 1945 graduate Richard Howard “Dick” Delp.  

Delp is remembered as a brilliant Troy student who became the co-designer of the Vanguard rocket “brain” in the mid-1950s.

Delp lived in Troy only a short time. He is believed to have moved to Troy during the summer of 1944 to live with his father and stepmother in a house on McKaig. He started at Troy High School as a senior in the fall of 1944 when he was just 16 years old.

It is thought that he had been allowed to move up a grade at some point in his schooling. His classmates were 17 or 18 years old.

Before coming to Troy, Delp is believed to have lived with his mother and stepfather in South Solon, Madison County, Ohio. His parents were divorced and both had remarried.

His father, Howard Delp, was an attorney for Lear-Avia Inc. in Piqua. Lear-Avia was owned by inventor, aviator and businessman William P. Lear. During Lear’s lifetime, his companies made everything from the eight-track tapes to the Learjet.

An article written by James C. Oda, Director of the Piqua Public Library and a Municipal Historian says about the Piqua company, “The firm manufactured electro-mechanical aviation equipment, general communication equipment, and aircraft landing instrumentation.” During World War II (1941-1945) it was a contractor for the United States Army Air Corps. The Piqua plant was open from 1941 until the late 1940s when most of the company relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Remaining plant operations were moved to California and Michigan at later dates. The plant permanently closed in 1953. Local historians have not confirmed how long Howard Delp worked for Lear-Avia, Inc. and/or William P. Lear.

According to the Troy High School 1945 yearbook, Dick Delp was a member of the National Honor Society, was in the senior class play “Don’t Take My Penny,” Hi-Y and the Spanish Club. There is also a reference in the “Class Will” section of the yearbook that he wore “loud” ties. The tie in his senior picture does seem to indicate his love for such ties.

Local historians have not been able to confirm where he went to college after high school. An article in the TROY DAILY NEWS dated June 1, 1957 says, “He received two scholarships, one from Ohio State University and one from the University of Cincinnati. He was also named principal candidate for appointment to the West Point Military academy.” Records do indicate that he served in the United States Army from August 1952 to August 1955.

In the mid-1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union were enemies in what was termed the Cold War era. Both countries wanted to be the first to put a man in orbit around the Earth. This was in the early days of space exploration.

At the time, Dick Delp worked for the Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Company on a project for the Vanguard rocket. He was a co-designer on what is termed the rocket “brain.” The rocket brain—described as no larger than a person’s head—controlled the actions of the rocket 130 miles above the earth. A photograph of Delp and the story of the Vanguard rocket was featured in LIFE magazine on June 3, 1957 (Vol. 42, No. 22, page 50, pictured below). The rocket was built by the Martin Co. along with 10 subcontractors. It was managed by the United States Naval Research Laboratory.

The Vanguard rocket was created to be the United States’ first launch vehicle to put a satellite in Earth’s orbit. The Soviet Union, however, surprised the United States by putting a satellite named Sputnik I in Earth’s orbit on October 4, 1957. American scientists scrambled to get a satellite in orbit too. Instead of the planned use of the Vanguard rocket, they used a rocket named Explorer I. The surprise of the Soviet’s putting Sputnik in orbit is sometimes referred to by Americans as the “Sputnik crisis.”

The first attempt to launch a satellite with a Vanguard rocket was on December 6, 1957. It ended in failure with an explosion. Wikipedia online says, “Despite being overshadowed by Sputnik and having to overcome widespread humiliation of its unsuccessful early attempts, the Vanguard project eventually met is successful objectives, providing a wealth of information on the size and shape of the Earth, air density, temperature ranges and micrometeorite impact.”

Delp later moved to near San Francisco, California. He died there in 2009. His obituary in the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS (May 21, 2009) says that he was “employed by many computer companies from 1971 until his death on March 31, 2009.”

In the last years of his life, he was a volunteer at the Computer History Museum in Mountainview, California. A newsletter for the museum shows he gave 200 hours of volunteer service in 2008. He also gave scientific presentations and was involved in computer-related clubs.

In an article in the TROY DAILY NEWS (June 1, 1957), his former high school teacher C.W. Walter said, “He was one of the most brilliant students who ever attended classes here….”   

Though Delp’s story of involvement in space exploration and computer science is now mostly forgotten, it is a part of the aviation history of Troy.

The LIFE magazine with Delp’s photograph is online at Google Books. It can be found by going to the Google search engine and putting in the words “Vanguard & Dick Delp.” His photograph is on page 50.

A copy of the 1945 Troy High School yearbook with Delp’s high school photograph is available for viewing at the Troy-Miami Public Library Local History Library, 100 W. Main Street in Troy.

It should be noted that the Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton has a missile gallery in which one can see numerous rockets and missiles.  The Vanguard rocket, however, is not there because it was not an Air Force-related rocket.

For further information about this story, contact THE TROY HISTORICAL SOCIETY at (937) 339-5900 or by email at tths@frontier.com.

Top left, clockwise: LIFE magazine cover with Delp's story, Delp pictured at bottom right next to briefcase and possibly in the middle shot of the top photo (both from Google archives) and Delp's senior yearbook photo, courtesy of the Troy Historical Society. 

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