Former NASA Administrator Richard Truly Passes Away

Former NASA Administrator Richard Truly Passes Away

Former NASA Administrator and astronaut Richard Truly passed away on February 27, 2024. He was 86. Truly’s career will probably be best remembered for his leadership at NASA in returning the space shuttle to flight after the 1986 Challenger tragedy and his later appointment to head the agency by President George H. W. Bush, but he also served the nation in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of Vice Admiral, earning the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, and was the first commander of Naval Space Command.

Richard Truly.

A native of Fayette, Mississippi, Truly joined the Navy in 1959 after graduating from Georgia Tech and became a Naval Aviator, making more than 300 carrier landings.

His space career began in 1965 when he was selected for DOD’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program to put a space station in Earth orbit dedicated to military purposes, especially reconnaissance. DOD later reassessed the need for humans in space to perform those tasks and cancelled MOL in 1969. Truly and six of the other 14 MOL astronauts — those under the age of 36 — moved over to NASA’s program. He was capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for all three astronaut flights to NASA’s first space station, Skylab, and for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

During that time NASA was developing the Space Shuttle and Truly was one of the astronauts who flew the Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests at Edwards Air Force Base, CA in 1977 on Space Shuttle Enterprise, an atmospheric test model that was not intended for spaceflight. He made his first trip to space on Columbia in 1981 (STS-2) and flew again on Challenger in 1983 (STS-8), the first shuttle night launch and landing.

At that point Truly decided to leave NASA and return to active duty in the Navy. He was assigned as the first commander of Naval Space Command at Dahlgren, VA in October 1983 and rose to the rank of Rear Admiral.

He returned to NASA three weeks after the January 28, 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy to lead the painstaking return-to-flight effort as Associate Administrator for Space Flight. In a wide-ranging videotaped interview in 2012, Truly spoke compellingly about the days and weeks after Challenger, a time when NASA did not have an Administrator, and why he agreed to come back.

The shuttle returned to flight on September 29, 1988 near the end of the Reagan Administration. President George H.W. Bush, another former Naval Aviator, took office in January 1989 and quickly chose Truly to be NASA’s 8th Administrator. Truly initially served as acting administrator and was promoted to Vice Admiral in June 1989 after his Senate confirmation hearing. The National Aeronautics and Space Act requires NASA Administrators to be appointed from civilian life, so he had to resign from the Navy before accepting the post. He resigned on June 30, 1989 and became NASA Administrator on July 1.

Three weeks later, on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, Bush stood on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and announced plans to return astronauts to the Moon and go on to Mars — the Space Exploration Initiative.

President George H. W. Bush on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum, July 20, 1989, announcing plans to return astronauts to the Moon and go on to Mars. NASA Administrator Richard Truly is third from the left next to Mrs. Bush. Credit: NASA

Congress was consumed with concern about the national debt at the time and not receptive to the idea of the $400-500 billion program. NASA and Truly were viewed as unenthusiastic as well, perhaps aware of how hard it would be to get the requisite funding on top of what was needed for Shuttle, Space Station Freedom (now the International Space Station), and other NASA activities. That put Truly at cross purposes with the White House National Space Council, which had just been established by Bush under the leadership of Vice President Dan Quayle in accordance with the 1989 NASA Authorization Act.

Truly and Space Council Executive Secretary Mark Albrecht continually clashed over SEI and NASA’s future in general. The agency also was getting bad press because of a flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror, hydrogen leaks on the space shuttle, and delays in the space station program. In the end, Truly lost Bush’s confidence. Most accounts refer to Truly being fired, but Bush’s official statement was kinder.

“I have today regretfully accepted the resignation of Richard H. Truly as Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. …

“As a result of his leadership, NASA is better prepared for the 1990’s and beyond. He has established a balanced space program, and he has worked closely with the Vice President in developing our space exploration initiative that begins with Space Station Freedom.” — President George H. W. Bush, February 12, 1992

Truly praised Bush’s support of the space program and NASA after Bush’s death in 2018.

After leaving NASA, Truly became Vice President and Director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute and later director of the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO.

Truly received many awards including two NASA Distinguished Service Medals, two Legions of Merit, the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, the Robert Collier Trophy (twice), the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy (twice), and was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2001.

In a statement, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who flew on the space shuttle flight immediately before Challenger when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, praised Truly’s service to NASA and the nation.

“NASA is the place it is today because of people of character, vision, and a spirit of service – people like the great man we lost Feb. 27, former NASA administrator, associate administrator, and astronaut Richard Truly.

“In his decades of service – to the Navy, to NASA, to his country – Richard lifted ever higher humanity’s quest to know the unknown and to achieve the impossible dream.


“Richard had the makings of someone who understood that we choose to do great things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. He was a personal friend and a mentor to so many of us. I share my deep condolences with Richard’s wife, Cody, and their three children. I invite all those who care for humanity’s quest to reach ever higher to join me in saying farewell to a great public servant.” — Bill Nelson

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