What do the first men on the moon, the Pacific University Athletic Hall of Fame, and secret military satellite launches during the Vietnam War have in common? Pacific alumnus Alexander “Sandy” Farquhar ’65, of course.
Farquhar initially came to Pacific on an optometry scholarship, having won the Idaho Optometric Association award in high school for a scholarship to his choice of the top 10 optometry schools in the country. Pacific was the closest, but after a year he decided that optometry just wasn’t his calling, so he dropped out of the program to pursue math, “where I think I belonged,” he reminisces.
As sophomore class president and, as a senior, student body president, Farquhar certainly didn’t waste a second of his time in college. He sang in choir as a freshman, minored in physics “by accident,” and played tennis all four years. In fact, his tennis team of ’62-’64 was recently inducted into the Pacific University Athletic Hall of Fame, after some of his old teammates still heavily involved with the school “realized we’d won a heck of a lot more matches than we’d lost.”
He remembers his days on that Hall of Fame team fondly.
“We went down to Southern Oregon, for a tennis match, and the coach told us we had a choice: either two guys to a motel room and no money for food, or four guys to a room and lots of money for food. We picked food.”
“I was sleeping in a bed with Lund Chin [a 1995 Hall of Fame inductee] and I got a cramp at the bottom of my foot. I screamed real loud and everyone jumped up, freaking out. After that, we pulled the mattresses off the beds and slept two guys on floor, two guys on the box springs.”
After graduating in 1965, Farquhar acquired a NASA fellowship to attend Washington State University and get his PhD in math.
“NASA in those days was all about the space race. I just stayed at Washington State, but I didn’t like it; it was a big school compared to Pacific. Turns out I didn’t want to get a PhD in Math, didn’t want to be stuck at a desk all day long. So I left Washington State after my first year and went to work for Boeing in Seattle.”
According to Farquhar, if you were a college graduate that didn’t get a job with a company using your degree, you’d get shipped off to Vietnam, so another advantage of working for Boeing was that they gave him a military deferment.
Farquhar stayed in Seattle for two years before getting a job offer from RCA and moving to Cape Canaveral, where the Kennedy Space Center still exists today.
“Talk about fun.” Farquhar remembers. “I was 24 when I got there and 28 when I left. The average age in the area was 28 years old. Lot of young people, partying hard… Party, party, party. ‘TGIF’ started in Cape Canaveral because of all the buffets and cheap drinks… We lived on the beach, and everybody knew everybody. You really felt good about that job down there.”
Though he worked a lot with the Apollo missions, including Apollo 11, Farquhar’s main job was not directly related to NASA’s space race.
“The group I was in was RCA, and we worked on all the launches, military and private…I was a programmer analyst, computer programmer, and launch analyst. Was there for any kind of launch… The Air Force had these Minute Man missiles and would launch them from the Cape- they’d just blow you away they were so pretty… At the Cape we did all sorts of stuff, lots and lots of secret launches, basically putting satellites over the top of Vietnam, and the cameras they had on those things, they could take a picture of an intersection of any place in the world just about. And then we also had weather satellites going up. What my group did was we watched the information from the live computers when the rockets were going off. Lots of telemetry and satellite, and different places would send the information back to us and we would come out with more refined information and send that to the next place down range. We’d get the best information back and then tell the next site and so on and so forth.”
Sometimes, between all the launches they juggled, oftentimes back-to-back, the RCA gang would be awake over 40 hours, and they weren’t all as exciting as NASA’s undertakings. Farquhar’s group did act as backup for the various Apollo missions however, checking and double-checking any given reading. During his 1968-1972 tenure at the Cape, Farquhar’s RCA group oversaw some of the most exciting NASA missions of all time, including Apollo 11, the first men on the moon, and Apollo 13, the nearly disastrous launch that inspired a Tom Hanks movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1996. Farquhar remembers Apollo 13, in fact, as his scariest moment working in Florida.
“We had a one-story building for the computer room, long skinny ceiling lights and the plastic things covering them. A few minutes after [Apollo 13] lifted off, the ceiling covers fell and scared the crap out of us. We couldn’t run or anything so we were still doing our job — our hearts were pounding fast but we were still doing our jobs. An oxygen tank exploded [on the rocket] and everyone thought they weren’t going to make it… I was listening to the live feed from the astronauts and all the NASA people in Houston. What blew everyone away was that they were cracking jokes, even though they could have died at any minute… I knew I’d never have a job as exciting as that.”
Though he still believes that last statement to this day, all good things must come to an end. After NASA successfully put men on the moon, “the rumblings came out” and the program either fired or cut the salaries of everyone working backstage at the launches. So Farquhar took a job back with Boeing and returned to Seattle. After a while longer he went into business with a friend back in Forest Grove, worked with AT&T, and spent a lot of time traveling. His favorite location? Australia.
“[Australia] is the highlight after I left Cape Canaveral. I loved it, everything there was different. It’s one of the few places in the world that they really like the Yanks. Great pubs, fun times. The food is good, the beer is great… I just turned 70, and I really want to go back.”
These days, Farquhar is retired in Tucson, Arizona, playing tennis with his wife, hiking, and traveling to escape the oppressively hot summers. From the Idaho high-schooler with an optometry scholarship to the retiree with experience launching rockets for NASA, he’s come a long way, and it’s clear he’s never regretted a single moment.