Dr. James Chipman Fletcher was the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who in 1972 began the development of the Space Shuttle as the follow-on human space flight effort of the agency. He also served as NASA administrator a second time, following the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986.
James Fletcher was born on June 5, 1919, in Millburn, New Jersey. He received an undergraduate degree in physics from Columbia University in 1940 and, in 1948, a Ph.D. in Physics from the California Institute of Technology. After holding research and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton Universities, he joined Hughes Aircraft in 1948 and later worked at the Guided Missile Division of the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation.
In 1958, Dr. Fletcher co-founded the Space Electronics Corporation in Glendale, California, which later became the Space General Corporation. He later served as Systems vice president of the Aerojet General Corporation in Sacramento, California. In 1964 he became president of the University of Utah, a position he held until he was sworn in as NASA’s administrator on April 27, 1971.
During his first administration at NASA, Dr. Fletcher was responsible for beginning the Space Shuttle program; he also oversaw or initiated virtually every major space project of the 1970s and 1980s. Although they were planned before he took over, Fletcher was the administrator during the three Skylab missions in 1973 and 1974, and the two Viking probes that landed on Mars in 1976. He also approved the Voyager space probe to the outer planets, and the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which, in 1975, linked American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts in space.
After retiring from NASA on May 1, 1977, Dr. Fletcher worked as a consultant and served on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. In addition, he was extremely active as an advisor to key national leaders involved in planning space policy until he returned (reluctantly) to head NASA on May 12, 1986, following the Challenger disaster.
During his second administration at NASA, Dr. Fletcher ordered the Shuttle program into a two-year hiatus while the agency worked to redesign the solid rocket boosters and revamp its management structure. He ensured that NASA reinvested heavily in the program’s safety and reliability, made organizational changes to improve efficiency and restructured its management system.
Dr. Fletcher directed the complete redesign of many of the components of the Shuttle, enhancing its safety and adding an escape method for the astronauts. He also greatly expanded the use of expendable launch vehicles in sending satellites into space. Fletcher oversaw the return of the Space Shuttle to flight on September 29, 1988. Before his final retirement from NASA came on April 8, 1989, he also approved the Hubble Space Telescope program.
Dr. James C. Fletcher died of lung cancer at his home in Washington, DC on December 22, 1991.