John E. Naugle, 89, a NASA aerospace researcher and administrator who held the title of chief scientist when he retired from the space agency in 1981, died Jan. 23 at his home in North Falmouth, Mass. He had colon cancer.

A daughter, Leta Serafim, confirmed the death.

Dr. Naugle worked for a space lab at General Dynamics on early missile programs in San Diego and White Sands, N.M., before joining NASA at its inception in 1958.

He spent almost his entire career at NASA headquarters. At various times, he was director of the Physics and Astronomy Program and associate administrator for the Office of Space Science.

After his NASA retirement, he was chairman of Fairchild Industries’ Fairchild Space Co. The company was working with NASA to develop a privately owned space platform for industrial and government customers. Fairchild shelved the program by the mid-1980s, and Dr. Naugle became a consultant to the NASA administrator until 1991.

Dr. Naugle, who helped participate in drafting an international treaty on the peaceful uses of outer space, twice received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. He was also a recipient of an American Astronautical Society award for outstanding contributions to space science and technology.

John Earl Naugle was born in Belle Fourche, S.D., where his parents were homesteaders. He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and was held as a prisoner of war by the Germans after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge, his daughter said.

Leta Serafim added that her father was subsequently released and was involved with the cleanup after the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany. The experience of witnessing so much destruction on Earth led him to a career in space, she said.

At the University of Minnesota, he received three degrees in physics, including a doctorate in 1953.

Two of his books were published: “Unmanned Space Flight” (1965) and“First Among Equals: The Selection of NASA Space Science Experiments” (1991). At the time of his death, he was writing a book titled “Pioneers of the Cosmic Frontier,” about the origins of particle physics and the development of the U.S. space program.

He moved to Massachusetts from Chevy Chase in 1989.

His wife, Ethel Hale Naugle, whom he married in 1945, died Feb. 2. Their son, Scott Naugle, died in 1982.

Survivors include two daughters, Leta Serafim of Sudbury, Mass., and Merridy McDaniel of Monroe, Ga.; a sister; a brother; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

— Adam Bernstein