Former NASA Administrator Jim Beggs Passes Away

Former NASA Administrator Jim Beggs Passes Away

Jim Beggs, who led NASA from 1981 to 1985, died on April 23 at the age of 94.  Taking the helm of the agency just after the first flight of the space shuttle, he made it his mission to move on to the next step in human exploration — building a permanent space station in Earth orbit.  His legacy, the International Space Station, is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary of permanent human occupancy.

Jim Beggs, NASA Administrator 1981-1985.  Credit: NASA

Beggs had a distinguished career in government and industry before his nomination by President Ronald Reagan to become the head of NASA.

A 1947 Naval Academy graduate, he served in the Navy until 1954. After receiving a master’s degree from Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, he spent the next two decades working for Westinghouse Electric Corp. and General Dynamics, as well as serving as Under Secretary of Transportation, and for one year (1968-1969) as NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Office of Advanced Research and Technology.

Prior to his appointment as NASA Administrator in 1981, he was Executive Vice President and a director of General Dynamics (GD). In 1985, he was accused of fraud during his tenure at GD, indicted, and forced to take a leave of absence from NASA on December 4, 1985.

When the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed during launch on January 28, 1986, NASA was headed by an acting administrator, Bill Graham.

Beggs resigned from NASA on February 25, 1986 to fight the indictment, which was later dismissed. Ed Meese, then serving as Reagan’s Attorney General, wrote to Beggs offering a “profound apology” for Justice Department officials proceeding “on the basis of what proved to be an inaccurate understanding and assessment of underlying facts.”

Well known for his Shakespearean quotes, Beggs was highly admired and respected throughout the aerospace community before, during, and after his tenure as Administrator.

He took over NASA on June 1, 1981, not quite two months after the space shuttle made its first flight on April 12.  The concept of a reusable spacecraft — the shuttle — originated in the “post-Apollo” report by the Nixon Administration’s Space Task Group in 1969 and one of its purposes was to service a permanently-occupied space station in low Earth orbit.  At the time, NASA was developing Skylab, the first U.S. space station.  Launched in 1973, it could accommodate crews only for relatively short missions (the longest was 84 days).

Nixon approved only the shuttle, however, not the space station.  Presidents Ford and Carter also showed no interest in funding another expensive space program while the shuttle was in development.

With the shuttle now flying, Beggs made it one of his missions to get the Reagan Administration to commit to building the permanently-occupied space station.  Despite opposition from most of the Cabinet, Reagan agreed. In his 1984 State of the Union Address, he announced the goal of building a space station, with international partners, within a decade.

It took much longer than that, and cost much more than estimated, but today’s International Space Station stands as Beggs’ lasting legacy to the space program.

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