WASHINGTON — The White House is urgently searching for "a white knight" to take command of the nation's demoralized space program, sources said Friday.
They identified the leading candidate as James C. Fletcher, a former space agency administrator regarded as the father of the shuttle program.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was virtually leaderless when the shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28. Its administrator, James M. Beggs, was on leave to fight a criminal indictment dating from his days as an aerospace industry executive, and its acting administrator, William R. Graham, was new on the job with barely two months of government experience.
In the 17 days since the explosion killed the seven shuttle crew members, President Reagan has pledged repeatedly to press ahead with the space program. But his aides have been troubled by what they perceive as an unsteadiness in NASA's course in coping with the disaster's aftermath.
"You need a strong hand, a steady hand," said one presidential assistant, who added that finding the right person to head NASA during this critical period is a top priority at the White House.
One middle-level NASA official said the agency's employees, still reeling from the emotional blow of the disaster as they try to cope with the burgeoning investigations, "are really low--they need and want a white knight. They feel that our future in space is at stake."
A White House official in Santa Barbara, where Reagan arrived Thursday for a long weekend at his ranch, said Fletcher, who headed NASA from 1971 to 1977, is "definitely in the running" for the position.
Contacted at his home in suburban McLean, Va., the 66-year-old Fletcher said he had not been offered the job. When asked if he would accept it if offered, he said: "I don't know if I would. It would depend on the circumstances. If they really were desperate, I suppose I could have my arm twisted."
Sources said Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) called White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan this week to urge Fletcher's selection. Garn, who flew a shuttle mission last year, is a longtime friend of Fletcher, who was president of the University of Utah for seven years before President Richard M. Nixon named him NASA administrator.
Another presidential aide said the search has not yet narrowed to the point where a potential nominee is undergoing the final clearance process. Because the selection process is focusing on candidates who are well-known within "the NASA community" and may already have been in government, he added, the financial and FBI checks are expected to be relatively quick.
According to sources inside and outside government, the list of potential candidates for the job also includes Thomas O. Paine, who was NASA administrator from 1968 through 1970, when Americans first landed on the moon, and later became president of Northrop Corp.; Lt. Gen. James A. Abramson, head of Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense program; former astronaut Thomas P. Stafford, a retired Air Force general; former Sen. Harrison H. Schmitt (R-N.M.), also a former astronaut, and Air Force Undersecretary Edward C. Aldridge, who was scheduled to be on a future shuttle crew.
Paine is chairman of the National Commission on Space, authorized by Congress and appointed by Reagan, which is completing a yearlong study of future directions for America's space program. He said he had not been contacted about the NASA position.
"I think it's just a rumor," he said. "What I want to do more than anything is finish this report and give the President and Congress a really good outline of a space program for the next 20 years."
But, he added in response to a question: "I would do anything I could for NASA."
Abramson, who once headed the shuttle program, is known to be highly regarded by White House aides. But sources at the Pentagon and elsewhere said his selection is unlikely because he is considered more valuable to the Administration as "Star Wars" director.
Stafford, who as a lieutenant general headed the Air Force's research and development programs after serving as an astronaut, reportedly spurned "feelers" from the White House about the top NASA job after Beggs' indictment in Los Angeles, citing his business commitments. But that was before the Challenger disaster.
Schmitt's name was advanced by his friends on Capitol Hill, where he served one six-year term in the Senate, but Administration sources described his candidacy as "a little boomlet" and said he was only a "dark horse."
Glenn, Yeager Mentioned
The names of Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), the first American to orbit the Earth, and retired Lt. Gen. Charles E. (Chuck) Yeager, the former test pilot who was the first man to break the sound barrier, also surfaced in speculation about the NASA post.
Glenn quickly said he would not take the job because he already has "the only job I want."