BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — Former NASA administrator James M. Beggs, who led the agency during the early years of the space shuttle program and resigned after the Challenger disaster killed seven astronauts in 1986, died Thursday at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 94.
Congestive heart failure is suspected to be the cause of his death, according to one of his sons, Charles Beggs.
President Ronald Reagan nominated Beggs to become the sixth administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He served in the agency’s top position from July 1981 to December 1985.
Beggs was on a leave of absence from the post when the Challenger space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after launch on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard, including New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe.
Beggs’ resignation took effect nearly a month later. His son, Charles Beggs, recalls asking his father years later why he resigned. He said his father told him that NASA needed to move on from the disaster with strong leadership that he couldn’t provide under the circumstances.
“Instead of hanging on, he resigned for the good of the organization,” Charles Beggs said. “It wasn’t about him. It was about others.”
Charles Beggs said his father was proud to receive a NASA award named after Robert Goddard, a pioneer in the rocketry field.
NASA had more than 20 successful space shuttle missions during Beggs’ tenure. The Washington Post described him as a popular and charismatic figure who was skilled at dealing with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“There is no telling where our vision and imagination will lead us once we have the space station,” he said in 1985, according to the newspaper. “As Shakespeare put it, ‘Thoughts are but dreams till their effects be tried.’”
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Beggs’ work on the space shuttle program helped NASA “open a whole new era of exploration.”
“We continue to build on his legacy today as we take advantage of our long-term presence in low-Earth orbit to make the advances to travel farther, and seed an entirely new segment of the economy through the innovations of commercial partners,” Bridenstine said in a statement.
Beggs, a Pittsburgh native, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1947 and served in the Navy until 1954. He was an executive vice president and a director of General Dynamics Corp. before becoming NASA administrator.
Beggs took a leave of absence as NASA administrator after he was indicted on federal charges that he and three other General Dynamics executives illegally billed the government. All charges were dropped in 1987. A Justice Department review found no laws had been violated. Then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III sent a written apology to Beggs for the prosecution.
Beggs worked as a Maryland-based consultant after leaving NASA. He had five children with his wife of 62 years, Mary Harrison Beggs, who died in 2015.