WASHINGTON — Richard G. Smith, director of the Kennedy Space Center and one of the officials who approved the ill-fated launch of the space shuttle Challenger, announced his retirement today. He is the second director of a major space center to quit in the shake-up following the shuttle disaster.
Smith, who has been in the space program for more than 35 years, will become president and chief executive of General Space Corp. of Pittsburgh, a NASA announcement said.
'98%' of Pressure From Media
In an interview on March 14, Smith complained that the presidential commission investigating the Challenger accident needlessly damaged the reputations of NASA officials and said that "98% of the pressure" to launch Challenger had come from news media.
"Every time there was a delay, the press would say, 'Look, there's another delay . . . here's a bunch of idiots who can't even handle a launch schedule,' " Smith told the Washington Post.
"You think that doesn't have an impact? If you think it doesn't, you're stupid."
Smith's resignation follows that of William Lucas, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, which supervises the booster rockets that power the shuttle to orbit. The Rogers commission report blamed a leak in a booster rocket joint for the explosion that destroyed Challenger and killed its crew of seven.
A NASA employee publication, Spaceport News, quoted Smith last week as saying he agreed with the overall commission report and said he thought "minor changes are needed and not dramatic overhauls."
The report, Smith said, "reads like a novel and presents a description of the facts they found and the conclusions they reached."
The report was critical of management procedures and of Kennedy officials for allowing the launch to proceed after warnings from two major contractors.
Private Shuttle Sought
The chairman of General Space and its parent company, Astrotech International, is Willard F. Rockwell, who founded Rockwell International, which built the shuttle. Rockwell and Astrotech have said they want to build a shuttle of their own and lease it to the government.
James C. Fletcher, the new administrator of NASA, came from Astrotech. The firm has on its board of directors another former NASA center director, Gerald D. Griffin of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Smith had been director of the Kennedy Space Center since 1979. He had joined the rocket research and development team at Redstone Arsenal in 1951 after graduating from Auburn University.