In the four months since the Challenger accident, virtually all of the key officials involved in the decision to launch the shuttle have left their jobs in what officials say is the beginning of an even more extensive management overhaul of the nation's space program.
The latest and most significant departure came yesterday when William R. Lucas, one of the pioneers of American rocketry who rose to become director of the NASA center that managed the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, announced his retirement.
The announcement by Lucas, 64, the second highest ranking NASA official to announce departure since the Jan. 28 accident, comes one day after booster maker Morton Thiokol Inc. imposed its own management shake-up, transferring two senior executives and scheduling the retirement of a third.
That brought to 10 the number of NASA and Thiokol officials involved in the accident who have left or are scheduled to leave the jobs they held at the time the disaster occurred.
NASA general manager Philip Culbertson said yesterday there will be even more personnel changes as part of a management restructuring that will significantly change the face of the space agency after the release of the report of the presidential commission on the accident next week.
In response to the report, "there are going to be some people changes," Culberston said. "We recognize we've had some problems . . . . When you go through a thing like this and you get concerns about chain of command and communications . . . then you make changes to fix them."
Since the accident, NASA has gotten a new administrator, a new shuttle director, a new director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston and now will shortly get a new director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
As the strong-willed director of the sprawling Marshall center, Lucas was among the most controversial of the group, coming under under sharp criticism for fostering what one member of the Challenger commission called a management "psychology" that stifled dissent and discouraged attention to critical safety problems.
Lucas began his career 34 years ago as a member of Wernher von Braun's legendary team of rocket engineers at the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal, which became Marshall in 1960 shortly after NASA's creation. In recent months, Lucas infuriated commission members with what they interpreted as an unrepentant stand on the shuttle launch and for defiantly defending his subordinates. He declared last February: "I don't know what my people knew, but given what they say they knew . . . . I think it was a sound decision to launch" Challenger.
On Friday the presidential commission will send President Reagan a 200-plus page report that blames Marshall engineers for failing to correct problems in the boosters and recommends changes in NASA's management structure, including a tightening of control by headquarters over agency centers, according to sources.
Commission member Richard Feynman said yesterday in an interview that Lucas' resignation and other job shifts are "part of what's necessary to change the situation." But, Feynman added, there also must be more fundamental changes in management style for Marshall and the rest of the space agency to get back on track.
"It's a question of attitudes," said Feynman. "There was a discouragement [at Marshall] against communicating what might be called bad news . . . . I don't really think personnel alone is enough to improve that."
In a speech televised to the 3,200 Marshall employes over closed-circuit television yesterday morning, Lucas said that "several months ago" he had privately decided to retire by the end of this year in time for his 65th birthday next March.
"The Challenger accident caused me to put aside thoughts of any retirement plans temporarily until the cause of the tragedy was determined," Lucas said. "Now that the causes of the accident are well enough understood so that the problems can be fixed . . . and inasmuch as the space shuttle cannot fly again before the end of 1986, I have concluded that it is appropriate for me to retire now and allow my successor to become firmly established . . . "
His retirement will be effective July 3, Lucas said. His deputy, T.J. (Jack) Lee will serve as acting director until a permanent replacement is named.
NASA administrator James C. Fletcher, who last month succeeded acting administrator William R. Graham, yesterday praised Lucas for technological achievements of "the highest magnitude" in developing the space shuttle. But critics welcomed his departure. "Under any responsible democratic government, where there is a real foul-up, the top guy tenders his resignation," said Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.).
On the night of Jan. 27, three Marshall officials engaged in a heated five-hour argument with engineers from Morton Thiokol over launching the shuttle the next morning. The engineers, who worried about the effect of cold weather on the O-ring seals that bind booster rocket joints, ultimately were overruled by four senior Thiokol executives in Utah, giving the green light for the launch.
Now, all three of those Marshall officials and all four of the Thiokol officials are gone from their jobs. At Marshall, Lawrence B. Mulloy has been transferred out of his job as chief of solid rocket motors, George Hardy has retired as assistant director of science and engineering, and Stanley R. Reinhartz has been reassigned from his job as manager of the shuttle projects office.
Although Lucas did not participate in the meeting, he said he was informed of the Thiokol engineers' arguments and decided not to pass them to higher-ups because he was not a part of the launch chain of command. Jesse Moore, the associate administrator for space flight who is now director of the Johnson Space Center, later said he was unaware of the Thiokol concerns, prompting the commission to pronounce the launch decision process "flawed."