By Francis French
Every day, it seems, I read a new article talking about how NASA has lost its bold vision, and that new visionaries are needed to push our space program in exciting directions. The truth, I believe, is a little more down to earth. NASA needs more money to be able to do ever-bolder things. The visionaries, the thinkers and doers, are already in place, and have been for decades. There are always bright people around ready to push new challenges.
It is more a matter of chance that some people get to shine: they are in the right place at the right time when they are needed. That is not to say that these people are not special; they worked hard to get into the position they held when history happened to need them. Dale Myers, who passed away in May at the age of 93, was one of them.
Myers was the Deputy NASA Administrator and acting NASA Administrator at one of the space agency’s most difficult times — immediately after the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. He is credited with assisting greatly to get the space program back on track and moving forward with optimism after such a devastating setback.
He had earlier worked through a similar situation with the tragic Apollo 1 fire, where astronauts also died, serving in NASA management to keep the program on track for a successful moon landing just two years later. He was also the Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight during the Apollo 13 crisis. In short, he was there many times when NASA needed his skills, at some of its most challenging moments.
With an impressive background in developing jet aircraft and missiles after World War II, he was a natural to transition into space work as a new frontier of exploration required new technological breakthroughs. To shepherd the Apollo spacecraft to completion in the very short time allowed in the heat of the Space Race would have been accomplishment enough. And yet, decades later, a reluctant Myers took a phone call from President Reagan, who persuaded him that his leadership was needed again. A space shuttle launch had just killed its crew of seven, and NASA needed a leader to get them back on track. For three years, he helped steer the shuttle program back to flight, instilling both a sense of renewed positivity and new safety measures. NASA was a better place for his efforts.
Myers was a regular at special events at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. During evenings where the Apollo-era astronauts were being honored, Myers would generally take a back seat. A quiet, modest man, he allowed them to enjoy the spotlight. But those in the audience who knew his accomplishments would often engage him in discussion, and learn fascinating insights into how America got to the moon, built a space shuttle, and a space station. Most tellingly, the astronauts who were the focus of adoration always found a moment, with a quiet word or a pat on the shoulder, to make sure they acknowledged someone that they respected and looked up to. He was never the public face of the space program, but something more: someone respected by the famous names in the history books. One day, I believe, one of the young people he talked to and inspired at the museum will also find themselves in the right place at the right time to make history, just as he did.
Francis French is director of education at the San Diego Air & Space Museum and a published space historian.