It is a sad footnote of history that the man who once described the Hubble Space Telescope as the “eighth wonder of the world” passed away on the eve of its 30th anniversary. As the world observes three decades of Hubble science and accomplishment this weekend, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine paid glowing tribute to his predecessor, former agency head Jim Beggs, who died Thursday, 23 April, at the age of 94. Mr. Beggs helmed NASA from July 1981 through December 1985, a tenure which saw the halcyon days of the Space Shuttle program, as the fleet of reusable orbiters spread their wings and fledgling plans were laid for what became the International Space Station (ISS).
“NASA sends its condolences to the family of James Beggs,” Mr. Bridenstine said in a Saturday announcement. “Mr. Beggs led the agency during the earliest days of the Space Shuttle Program and helped us 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 and entirely new segment of the economy through the innovations of commercial partners.
“Mr. Beggs also served his country in the U.S. Navy and supported NASA’s achievements during the Apollo era, during an agency tenure in the late 1960s,” Mr. Bridenstine continued. “His legacy guided the shuttle program toward its three decades of achievements and set the stage for a diverse and flexible astronaut corps from which we continue to benefit. We salute his service and will continue to honor his contributions to our great agency.”
James Montgomery Beggs came from Pittsburgh, Penn., where he was born on 9 January 1926. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1947 and was a submariner during the latter phase of his seven years in military service. He married Mary in 1954 and entered Harvard Business School, from which he earned a master’s degree, then worked for Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Sharon, Penn., and Baltimore, Md., for more than a decade. He was hired by NASA Administrator Jim Webb in 1968 as the agency’s associate administrator for advanced research and technology. “It was right during the Apollo program,” Beggs told the NASA oral historian, years later, “and it was an opportunity to really participate in…probably the most historic technical program this country’s ever undertaken.”
He left NASA the following year to become undersecretary of the Department of Transportation through 1973, then served as managing director of operations at Summan Corp. in Los Angeles, Calif., and later General Dynamics. Beggs’ second term with NASA commenced in July 1981, when he was appointed as its tenth Administrator. His first priority was to get the Space Shuttle—which had flown its first manned mission in April 1981—from an “experimental” vehicle towards the goal of an “operational” means of getting people reliably and regularly into low-Earth orbit. But perhaps more significantly, it was under Beggs’ leadership that President Ronald Reagan was persuaded to announce Space Station Freedom, the forerunner of today’s International Space Station. “I pointed out, which is an argument that he liked, is that you’ll be able to see it with the naked eye, which you are,” Beggs told the NASA oral historian. “It’s an evening and morning star.”
As plans for the station rose from the drawing-board, so too did the Hubble Space Telescope begin its tortured path into construction. The problems it would go on to suffer with its improperly-ground primary mirror are well-known, but the relationship problems between NASA and its contractors, including mirror builder Perkin-Elmer, had caused concerns for Beggs. “We should have applied some good common sense on the mirror, but I’m still mad at the Air Force on that one, because Perkin-Elmer was doing all the work on the Air Force mirrors and they wouldn’t let us back in the highly secure areas,” he told the NASA oral historian. Eventually, Beggs persuaded Air Force Undersecretary Pete Aldridge to provide access to NASA personnel. “But it was too late,” he lamented. “The grinding had already been done and they had presumably tested it, only they tested it faultily. But I blamed that on the Air Force, and I still do to this day, not on NASA.”
When Beggs became head of NASA, Utah senator Jake Garn, had approached him to request a seat on the shuttle when the possibility of flying passengers arose. A veteran fighter pilot, Garn was suitably qualified and by Beggs’ own admission had repeatedly “bearded” the administrator for a shuttle mission. Eventually, Beggs relented and Garn flew as a payload specialist aboard Discovery on Mission 51D. It did not hurt Garn’s chances that he was also head of the senate subcommittee which oversaw the NASA budget. “He wanted to fly and I saw no reason why he shouldn’t fly,” Beggs said later. “As a matter of fact, I saw a lot of reasons why he should, because he was chairman of the committee and he could help us a lot if he was more significantly familiar with what was going on in the program.”
An interesting story surrounds the launch of 51D on 12 April 1985 and Beggs’ role in it. Weather conditions were extremely murky that morning and the astronauts were convinced that they would scrub; to such an extent that several crew members had unstrapped from their seats. Writing in Flight International a few days later, journalist Tim Furniss noted that the reluctance of launch controllers to proceed vanished when Beggs appeared in the firing room. Discovery roared into orbit that morning, but the implication was clear: that schedule pressure in the pre-Challenger era was being taken more seriously than flight safety.
Before the loss of Challenger, of course, the shuttle was expected to fly many times per year, a goal which Beggs never considered realistically attainable, in view of the amount of repair work needed on main engines, heat-resistant tiles and other components after each mission. Forty flights per year was winnowed down to around 18 and eventually 12. “We thought that was well within what we had in place,” Beggs said. “We had four shuttles. We had sufficient production capability to get the boosters. We had sufficient production capability to get the tanks.” In 1985, the final year before Challenger, the shuttle achieved nine missions. It was the greatest number of flights ever accomplished by the fleet of orbiters in a single calendar year.
Beggs’ tenure at the helm of NASA officially ended in December 1985, when he became enmired in a particularly ugly indictment for contract fraud. It centered upon activities alleged by the Department of Defense to have occurred before Beggs took the helm of NASA. He took leave of absence from the agency and the indictment was subsequently dismissed, with the U.S. Attorney-General offering a formal apology to Beggs for having caused him any embarrassment.
And years later, although Beggs remained intensely proud of his time leading NASA, the pain was still raw. “They broke my life in two parts when they took me to court,” he told the oral historian. “I was fortunate in that I was completely exonerated, but after I got through, all of the opportunities that would have been there had gone a-glimmering.”
As NASA and the world’s spaceflight community mourns the passing of this titanic figure, two spacecraft which circle overhead tonight serve as a reminder of Beggs. The Hubble Space Telescope, which he once described as the eighth wonder of the world, passed three decades of operational service this past weekend, and the International Space Station—which, even in later life, Beggs insisted should still be called “Freedom”—is drawing close to its 20th anniversary of continuous human habitation. And of course neither of those remarkable endeavors would have been possible without the shuttle: a vehicle which under Beggs’ leadership rose from the ground and transformed itself from an experimental flying machine into a highly capable spacecraft which taught us how to live, work and build a future in space.