James Beggs, 94, Is Dead; NASA Chief Championed Space Shuttle

James M. Beggs, the NASA chief who oversaw more than 20 successful space shuttle launches and who was on leave during the fatal Challenger explosion in 1986, died on April 23 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 94.

Mr. Beggs had championed the shuttle program during his tenure, charming conservative critics of big government, especially a president whom he once described as “almost technically ignorant.”

“He said, ‘I can do that?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ So he did, and when he left that day, he said, ‘That’s the most fun I’ve had since I got this job.’”

Mr. Beggs shepherded the space shuttle from its experimental stage to what he called an operational phase, promoted the development of an International Space Station and was crediting with lifting morale in an agency that had known little recent glory.

Before joining NASA as its administrator, Mr. Beggs was the under secretary of transportation from 1969 to 1973 under President Lyndon B. Johnson. In that post he oversaw the creation of Conrail, which reorganized the freight operations of the bankrupt Penn Central Transportation Company and Erie Lackawanna Railway, and initiated Amtrak as a quasi-public passenger railroad.

Mr. Beggs tried unsuccessfully to create an American version of a commercial supersonic plane. And while he believed that “there must be intelligence out there somewhere” in outer space, his prediction that contact would be made by the beginning of the millennium proved unfounded.

James Montgomery Beggs was born on Jan. 9, 1926, in Pittsburgh to James Andrew Beggs, a bookkeeper and accountant for an oil well supply company, and Elizabeth (Mikulan) Beggs.

After attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas for a year, he entered the United States Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1947. He served in the Navy as a pilot and submariner until 1954 and earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School in 1955.

Even before the indictment and the Challenger disaster, Mr. Beggs had to grapple with political second-guessing and skepticism about scientific progress.

He recalled the firestorm that ensued after Tom Hayden, a California state legislator, and his wife, Jane Fonda — who were both known for their liberal activism — were invited in 1983 to watch as the astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman to be launched into space. Mr. Hayden represented the district in which Ms. Ride’s parents lived. Mr. Beggs said that he and his wife were never invited to the White House by the Reagans again.

While he was reluctant to rehash NASA’s culpability in the Challenger accident, Mr. Beggs said “they shouldn’t have launched” and that, despite being on leave, he had called the agency’s chief engineer that morning to express concern about icing.

“Whether I would have done anything different at the time, I’ve thought about that,” he said. “I think I would have, but that’s pure conjecture.”

The shuttle was “the most reliable and safest space vehicle we’ve ever flown,” he added. “No flying machine is 100 percent safe.”

source: nytimes.com

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