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Killian: Presidential Teacher

February 02, 1988

The legacy of James R. Killian Jr., who died last week in Cambridge, Mass., includes three important American institutions and a model of public service.

Killian, not himself a scientist, was the first science adviser to the White House, called to Washington from the presidency of Massachusetts Institute of Technology by President Eisenhower after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957. His first task was to organize the American response, a venture that became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

His longer-range task was to make certain that in a world on the verge of incredible scientific and technical discovery, the White House was open to the discoverers. It was a noble thought, one that he carried out with enthusiasm, turning over the post in 1959 to Harvard chemist George A. Kistiakowski. But as the inner circle's source of scientific and technical insight, the job survived for something under two decades, which is how long it took the White House to discover that it did not want to hear from scientists who thought they knew more about anything than the President.

Killian's next creation, NASA, was more durable, surviving to this day through a variety of manned space programs but now working in the shadow of the tragedy of the explosion of the shuttle Challenger and the loss of its seven crew members.

His third legacy is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, of which he was chairman in 1973 and 1974, having earlier been chairman of a Carnegie commission on educational television.

There is, of course, a fourth legacy. Killian was a brilliant analyst and administrator who was available again and again to leave his university when his government needed help in solving a problem. His contributions and the way in which he gave more to his government than he took from it is, or should be, a model for defining the term public service.

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