Willis Shapley Dies; NASA Official Boosted Manned Moon Landing

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Willis Harlow Shapley, 88, the third-ranking administrator at NASA during the Apollo era and an authority on federal funding for research and development, died Oct. 24 at Sibley Memorial Hospital of cellulitis, a bacterial infection. He lived in the District.

Mr. Shapley came to Washington in 1942 as an examiner with the Bureau of the Budget, now the Office of Management and Budget. Among other assignments, he reviewed funding for the Manhattan Project, the secret effort to build an atomic bomb.

In his role as a budget expert, he helped write a memorandum in March 1958 recommending an ambitious national program to explore space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created seven months later.

In 1961, after Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Mr. Shapley was named to a committee that prepared a memo advocating a new emphasis on a U.S. manned space flight program. The paper formed the foundation of President John F. Kennedy's memorable speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, in which he announced "the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Mr. Shapley joined NASA in 1965 as associate deputy administrator, responsible for the agency's budget, legislative affairs and international relations. During this period, the Apollo program grew, aiming to meet Kennedy's goal.

As the official in charge of "symbolic activities," Mr. Shapley solicited ideas from the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress and other federal bodies on how to commemorate the first lunar landing, which occurred July 20, 1969. His committee determined that miniature flags of all 50 states would be carried on the space module, along with flags of U.S. territories, the District and each member of the United Nations. Only a solitary American flag would be unfurled and left in perpetuity on the surface of the moon.

Mr. Shapley also helped set policy on how moon rocks should be handled and how scientific research from the Apollo missions should be conducted.

"Willis Shapley represented the best of a career government servant," John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said in an e-mail. "His work was seldom visible to those not familiar with the inner workings of government, but in his White House and NASA positions he played a key role in shaping the U.S. space effort from its beginnings through Apollo."

Mr. Shapley retired from NASA in 1975 to be a consultant for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for whom he conducted annual reviews of federal agencies' research and development budgets.

In 1986, after the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after its launch, Mr. Shapley returned to his previous job as NASA's associate deputy administrator and was a member of the committee that reviewed the agency's performance before and after the disaster. He retired for a second time in 1988 but continued as a consultant to NASA until 1992.

"During his over thirty years as a civil servant and after he left government," Logsdon said, "he was a source of wisdom and insight for key national leaders in the space, national security and public management sectors."

Willis Harlow Shapley was born in Pasadena, Calif., on March 2, 1917, and moved as a child to Cambridge, Mass. His father, Harlow Shapley, was a renowned astronomer and director of the Harvard College Observatory.

Mr. Shapley attended Harvard for two years before transferring to the University of Chicago, where he graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa member in 1938.

After his NASA career, Mr. Shapley worked with the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government and assisted the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

Mr. Shapley received NASA's Distinguished Service Medal twice (1969 and 1988), the Rockefeller Public Service Award (1956) and other honors.

He was a member of the Cosmos Club, for which he was treasurer and a member of the board and several committees.

Since 1981, he had been on the board of Science Service, an organization that publishes the weekly Science News and supervises an annual science competition. Science Service has an education fund in Mr. Shapley's name.

His wife of 63 years, Virginia Bishop Shapley, died in 2003.

Survivors include two daughters, Sarah Stowell Shapley and Deborah Shapley Cortesi, both of Washington; a sister; three brothers; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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