January 4, 2021

Erol Morey ’84 is a prime example of how life can surprise you when Plan A doesn’t work out.

In 1985, Erol had just received his master’s in geology from Texas A&M University and embarked on his long-awaited oil and gas career when the bottom fell out of the industry. There to catch him was the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Before he knew it, he was trading in his fossil fuel dreams for Cold War satellite spy craft.

Thirty-five years later, Erol and his wife, Barb, are thanking Texas A&M’s College of Geosciences in a tangible way for giving him a solid start to an unexpected, yet extraordinary, career. By designating the Texas A&M Foundation as the beneficiary of Erol’s individual retirement account (IRA), the Moreys’ planned endowment will provide fellowships for countless geosciences graduate students long after the couple is gone.

Along with a stellar education, Erol credits Texas A&M with making graduate school affordable. A Boston-area native and Washington University in St. Louis alumnus, he set his sights on Texas for his graduate coursework. But money was an issue. Texas A&M came through with a teaching assistantship complete with an in-state tuition rate of $4 per credit hour.

“Texas A&M took a chance on this Yankee, so I wanted to pay back the benefits I received,” Erol said. “The IRA provides yearly income off the principal that benefits Barb and me during our lives. After we’re gone, the principal is still there, so why not be generous and share it with others?”

A Slight Change of Plans

As an undergraduate, Erol discovered a love of geology. Pairing that with dreams of living abroad and making good money, he decided an oil and gas career was the right path for him.

Taking the advice of job recruiters, he opted to earn his master’s degree at a “big oil” school. He landed on Texas A&M. But while his education was top-rate, his graduation timing couldn’t have been worse.

“I had been to Houston, Dallas and Tyler just knocking on doors,” he recalled of his job search. “I finally realized that I needed to broaden my horizons, so I started sending applications to the federal government.”

His Plan B triggered a call that would change his life’s trajectory. It was the DOD’s Defense Mapping Agency (DMA).

Erol’s Plan A had been to visualize what might lie beneath the earth’s surface. He was now being asked to look up and imagine the role he could play in satellite imaging.

In with the New

The mid-1980s marked both the tail end of the Cold War and the rise in computer literacy. It also saw the retirement of those from the World War II generation. With this in mind, government agencies were eager to hire a new crop of college graduates.

“The DMA realized they needed younger people who both understood computers and made maps. This way, they didn’t need a lot of training,” Erol explained. “For me, it was a pretty natural fit.”

Scores of young people poured into the agency. Among them was Barbara “Barb” Youngquist, a University of Washington graduate who, like Erol, had majored in geology. Barb had dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, even participating in a summer dig in France. But while good money helped lure Erol to the oil and gas industry, the lack of it and predictable employment dissuaded Barb from an archaeology career. So she, too, found her place in governmental mapping.

The couple met through a mutual acquaintance, married, and, together, hitched their careers to the ever-evolving field of satellite imaging.

A Digital Revolution

Erol was instrumental in creating maps like this one of Khartoum, Sudan, which was the first map created using an entirely digital process in 1990.

When Erol and Barb joined the DMA in 1985 (before her move to the DOD’s Defense Intelligence Agency), he focused on terrain mapping, while she focused on nautical charting. Among Erol’s early responsibilities was using film-based images from spy satellites to create maps that would predict Soviet missile launcher locations. Barb mapped water body features using multispectral satellite imagery, using a method that manipulates different light wavelengths to uncover details invisible to the human eye.

It would be several years before the agency could completely transition from traditional film-based images and “pen and ink” mapping techniques. But by the end of the 1980s, the Moreys were among those ushering in the systems that would revolutionize satellite imaging data processing. Erol said these digital advancements “marked a fundamental change in the way the country produced maps and gathered intelligence.”

Government officials, military officers, intelligence personnel and others relied on the agency’s maps for such purposes as strategic military operations, diplomatic deliberations and assisting soldiers on the ground.

Barb was among those who operated the massive computers essential to digital imaging processing. These computers used countless lines of code to manipulate the digital images to produce the most accurate and detailed satellite images ever produced at that point in time.

“The workstations we used cost more than $1 million apiece,” Erol said. “You can now get similar information on your phone through apps like Google Maps.”

Buy American!

As the Cold War ended, so did the need for such a large group of satellite imagery scientists. In a 180-degree shift, the U.S. government encouraged companies who had worked on classified satellite imaging systems to take their technologies to the public marketplace.

“The hypothesis was that we wanted countries to buy into American companies that used satellites licensed by the U.S. government,” Erol explained. “We could encourage our friends and allies to buy American because we offered the best products—the Lamborghinis and Ferraris of the imagery exploitation world. At the same time, we would keep these countries from getting entwined with Chinese and Russian satellite capabilities, ensuring that they remained allied with the U.S.”

The Moreys left Washington, D.C., in 2000 and moved to the Denver area. There, they joined Space Imaging shortly after the company launched the IKONOS satellite—the first commercial, high-resolution Earth imaging satellite. Space Imaging supported U.S. national security efforts such as Operation Enduring Freedom. It also sold images to the public and allowed countries to avoid investing in their own satellites by “renting” the IKONOS satellite as it passed overhead, thereby providing previously unattainable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

The Next Chapter

Today, the IKONOS satellite is retired and Space Imaging has undergone a series of acquisitions. The Moreys remained in Colorado, where they raised their son, Ian, and their daughter, Katie ’18. Barb continues to use her mapping and analysis skills as the lead geographic information system analyst and developer for Jefferson County.

Barb and Erol Morey '84 are planning a fellowship endowment using an IRA to help future geosciences graduate students chart their course.

In 2016, Erol returned to the DOD to help the Joint Staff determine the future satellite

requirements of the newly reestablished U.S. Space Command. He lends his expertise as the team wrestles with key questions: In five to 10 years, what does the force structure need to look like to counter threats from such countries as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran? How many satellites will we need, and what will that entail in terms of the number and size of rocket launchers? What kind of weather satellites should we utilize to support our troops around the world? How many and what types of military personnel are needed to execute the Space Command mission?

It’s questions like these that make Erol thankful for his time at Texas A&M. Although he prepared for an oil and gas career that didn’t pan out, his graduate education was far from wasted.

“While I never got to use my knowledge of sedimentary carbonates, I learned to set up a master’s thesis, prove and disprove arguments, and write down my findings in a cohesive paper,” he said. “Those are skills that have lasted a lifetime.”

Through their fellowship endowment, the Moreys hope that future generations of graduate students will likewise leave Aggieland with these same research, analysis, critical thinking and communication abilities—skills that are essential to succeeding in all walks of life.

As for his oil patch aspirations, Erol said that ultimately, Plan B proved to be a better path for him.

“It’s too bad that I never got a job with ExxonMobil,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s been a very interesting life.”

To learn more about how you can impact the lives of up-and-coming geosciences stars, contact David Bacot ’90 by completing the form below. For more information on using your IRA or another retirement account to support the College of Geosciences after your lifetime, contact Angela Throne ’03 at giftplanning@txamfoundation.com.

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