KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Richard G. Smith, director of the Kennedy Space Center, announced his retirement Thursday but denied he was under any pressure to leave NASA as part of an ongoing management shake-up prompted by the Challenger disaster.
In an address to spaceport employees, Smith, 57, said he will leave NASA at the end of the month to become president and chief executive officer of General Space Corp., a subsidiary of Astrotech International in Pittsburgh.
The chairman of General Space and its parent company is Willard F. Rockwell, who founded Rockwell International, builder of the space shuttles.
Commercialization of Space
"I'm a firm believer there's a great future in the commercialization of space in all its aspects," Smith said at a news conference.
Thomas E. Utsman, deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center, will serve as acting director until Smith's replacement is named.
Since the shuttle exploded on Jan. 28, killing seven crew members, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has gained a new administrator, a new director of the shuttle program and a new director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The agency also has begun centralizing control of operations at Washington headquarters.
The presidential commission that investigated the Challenger accident leveled harsh criticism at agency management practices as a contributing cause of the worst space disaster in history.
'Came Out Very Clean'
"If you look at the presidential report, (the Kennedy Space Center) came out very clean," Smith said. "There has been absolutely no pressure applied to me to leave."
Unlike officials at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., who were in charge of the shuttle solid-fuel booster program, Smith did not come under any direct fire from the commission, but sources said he and other top agency managers have been criticized for failing to correct problems in the shuttle program.
General Space Corp. has asked the government for approval to finance a new shuttle that could be leased to NASA, and Astrotech International is engaged in a wide variety of aerospace activities.
Smith, a longtime proponent of commercial space activities, said: "If we're successful, maybe General Space will be the General Motors of space. That would be a goal of mine."
Smith, appointed director of the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 2, 1979, began his NASA career in 1951 with the rocket research and development team at the Army's Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville.