WASHINGTON — James M. Beggs has told associates he will resign as NASA administrator when he receives White House assurances that the job will not be given to acting Administrator William R. Graham, his archrival in a nasty bureaucratic struggle being waged within an agency already reeling from the shuttle disaster, it was learned Friday.
The development came as the White House faced increasing pressure from Capitol Hill to settle what one official called "this ugly situation."
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) Friday repeated his call for both Beggs and Graham to resign, saying the agency needs new and strong leadership as it copes with multiple investigations of the worst disaster of the space age.
And sources said that Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), who flew a shuttle mission last year, has again prodded aides to President Reagan to end the dispute by finding a "white knight" to take over the demoralized agency. Garn contended that the space program could be severely damaged unless something is done quickly.
White House officials said that an informal list of possible nominees for the job of NASA chief has been prepared and includes such names as former NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher, former astronaut Frank Borman and Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, director of the so-called "Star Wars" missile defense program. None has been formally approached about the job, however.
"It's kind of tough to have a search when there's not an opening," one White House official said. Another presidential aide called it "a chicken-and-egg problem"--Beggs not wanting to resign unless he receives assurances about his successor and the White House not wanting to act on a successor until Beggs resigns.
Beggs took a leave of absence as head of the 22,000-employee agency in December, when he was indicted in Los Angeles on charges stemming from his years as an aerospace industry executive, but he has continued to come to his NASA office almost daily. When the shuttle Challenger blew up on Jan. 28, Graham had been with the agency barely two months and had been installed as acting administrator over Beggs' protests.
According to several sources, Beggs considered Graham, a former Reagan Administration arms control adviser and Pentagon consultant, unprepared for the job. The two men, one NASA official said, "don't get along--they don't like or trust one another. Their relations have been very chilly."
Hollings, at a news conference, said that Beggs, "under his particular predicament, is really a detriment and should step aside." As for Graham, he said, "I have no confidence in what he says, and I think he is really in over his head."
Don't Talk to Each Other
Differences between the two men have reached the point "where they don't even talk to each other," Hollings said. Instead, he said, Beggs "leaves a note on the desk."
"We're into serious business now, and the Administration long ago should have appointed a full-time administrator we all have confidence in," Hollings said.
Neither Beggs nor Graham could be reached Friday for comment on Hollings' assertions.
The White House, meanwhile, is proceeding gingerly. Because Reagan said publicly at the time of Beggs' indictment--which was unrelated to his duties at NASA--that he would not ask him to step down until the matter was resolved, aides said they do not feel they can now ask him to resign his NASA post.
To Quit 'in Near Future'
Beggs has told associates that he will resign "in the near future--at the appropriate time." Those close to the former General Dynamics Corp. executive say this means he will not quit until assured that someone other than Graham succeeds him.
According to a White House aide, the list of possible successors is topped by Fletcher, a former aerospace executive and university president who headed NASA when the shuttle program was started in the early 1970s. It includes Borman, who now heads Eastern Airlines, because "we need a Frank Borman" at the agency, he said. However, the former astronaut reportedly has told friends in the Administration that he is not interested in the job.
Staff writers Eleanor Clift and Maura Dolan contributed to this story.