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The Extraordinary Life of James C. Fletcher, Head of NASA and U of U President

NASA Exhibition Now on Display

Special Collections Reading Room, Level 4
Do you use the Special Collections reading room? Please note that our hours have changed and there are some Saturdays when the reading room will be closed. See the updated hours here and feel free to call our reference desk anytime with questions: 801-581-8863.

By Heidi Brett


Last August millions of Americans donned special glasses and turned to the skies to witness the solar eclipse. The event sparked a distinct intrigue for many. What goes on in space that we don’t usually think about or perhaps isn’t even known yet to scientists?

James Chipman Fletcher would have had some of the answers to those questions. Curiosity and passion were certainly the key ingredients for Fletcher, the two-time Head of NASA who also served as the President of the University of Utah. And, thanks to him and his family, the library’s Special Collections now holds papers and photographs following his career, as well as several detailed models of space crafts and satellites.

Fletcher was born in 1919, in Millburn, New Jersey. He received a B.A. in physics from Columbia University and served as a research physicist with the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance. In 1941 he became a special research associate at the Cruf Laboratory of Harvard University. He went to Princeton University in 1942 as a teaching fellow and later served as an instructor and research physicist. In 1948, under an Eastman Kodak fellowship, Fletcher received his Ph.D. degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology. He then joined Hughes Aircraft Company as director of the Theory and Analysis Laboratory in the Electronics Division.

Dr. James C. Fletcher, University of Utah President & Two-time Head of NASA
April 27, 1971 Swearing-in ceremony of Fletcher as Adminstrator of NASA. The ceremony was held at the White House in the President’s office. Left to right: President Nixon, Dr. Fletcher, Mrs. Fletcher, and D.D. Superior Court Judge James A. Belson
Fletcher being inaugurated U of U President.

In 1964 Fletcher was named President of the University of Utah and remained in that position until 1971, when President Nixon named him NASA Administrator. He left NASA in 1977 and worked as an independent consultant and also served on the faculty of University of Pittsburg. In 1986 President Reagan called him back to NASA in reaction to the Challenger disaster. When Fletcher returned to NASA, he ordered a two-year halt of new project development in order to focus on redesigning the solid rocket boosters and overhauling management.

Dr. Fletcher presents the Prime Minister with a model of the Pioneer Spacecraft.

According to the New Mexico Museum of Space History, which is home to the International Space Hall of Fame, Fletcher was the only person to head NASA twice.

During his tenure as U President (1964 – 71), Fletcher saw to the spending of generous legislative funds with the construction of several new buildings, one of which was the J. Willard Marriott Library. Other new builds included the business lecture hall, the medical center, the physics building, and the special events center, to name a few.

The term “Fletcherization” was coined by the senior editor of the Chronicle. This term was defined by Fletcher’s drive for increased research, his call for excellence at every level, his practice of delegating, and his willingness to cut programs that were in his mind non-essential, in order to fund cutting-edge work.

Fletcher’s presidency ended abruptly when he was called to head NASA in 1971. Alfred Emery was appointed as Interim President (1971-73) and David Gardner was appointed President in 1973.

To learn more about James C. Fletcher, use the finding aids for the Fletcher collections. You are also welcome to come to the Special Collections reference desk on level 4 or call 801-581-8863.

Fletcher (far right) confers with Vice President Gerald Ford and White House Officials.
March 1971 Confirmation of NASA Head, Senator Wallace F. Bennett and James Fletcher
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