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In Memoriam: Vice Admiral Richard H. Truly, USN

March 7, 2024 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with deep regret that I inform you of the passing of Vice Admiral Richard Harrison “Dick” Truly, USN (Ret.), on 27 February 2024 at age 86. Vice Admiral Truly entered the U.S. Navy via the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in September 1955, serving as a naval aviator and astronaut until his retirement in July 1989 as associate administrator for space flight, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA.) He was the pilot of space shuttle mission STS-2 in 1981, and commander of space shuttle mission STS-8 in 1983. He was also the first commander of Naval Space Command. He led the investigation into the destruction of space shuttle Challenger. Following retirement from active duty, he served as the eighth administrator of NASA, the first former astronaut to hold that position, before “retiring” again in 1992.

Dick Truly entered the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the Georgia Institute of Technology on 27 September 1955. He graduated in June 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering and was commissioned an ensign. That same month, he reported to the Naval Aviation Basic Training Course (NATBC) at Naval Air Station (NAS), Pensacola, Florida. Primary flight training followed at Naval Auxiliary Air Stations (NAAS) Saufley Field and Whiting Field. In April 1960, Ensign Truly reported to NAAS Chase Field, Beeville, Texas, for jet training in the F-9F8B/T Cougar and F-11F1 Tiger jets. He was designated a naval aviator on 7 October 1960, reporting briefly to Attack Squadron FOUR FOUR (VA-44) for duty under instruction.

In November 1960, Ensign Truly reported to Fighter Squadron ONE SEVEN FOUR (VF-174) “Hell Razors” at NAS Cecil Field, Florida, the replacement air group (RAG) for the F8U Crusader jet fighter. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1960.

In April 1962, Lieutenant (j.g.) Truly was assigned to Fighter Squadron THREE THREE (VF-33) “Tarsiers” at NAS Oceana, Virginia, flying the F8U Crusader (redesignated F-8E later that year). VA-33 deployed to the Mediterranean embarked on attack carrier USS Intrepid (CVA-11) for an emergency deployment to the Caribbean in May 1961 in response to the assassination of Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo. Intrepid then deployed to the Mediterranean from August 1961 to March 1962. The carrier was then designated to convert to an anti-submarine warfare platform and VA-33 cross-decked to nuclear-powered attack carrier USS Enterprise (CVA[N]-65), deploying to the Mediterranean again from August to October 1962. Within days of return from deployment, Enterprise was emergency sortied to participate in the quarantine of Cuba as part of the four-carrier task force (TF-135) during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, returning to Norfolk in December 1962. Truly was promoted to lieutenant in June 1963.

In November 1963, Lieutenant Truly reported to the Aerospace Research Pilot School, Edwards Air Force Base, California. Under the tutelage of the commandant, the legendary Chuck Yeager (first pilot to break the sound barrier), Truly spent the first year as a test pilot student before transitioning to an academic and flight test instructor, flying many different types of aircraft. He was then selected as the youngest member of the then-classified U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. In November 1965, he reported to the MOL Systems Office at Headquarters Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO), Los Angeles, California. Truly was to serve as an astronaut on 30-day orbital missions, but the program was cancelled by President Nixon in June 1969. Lieutenant Truly was promoted to lieutenant commander in January 1967.

Selected to be part of National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) Astronaut Group 7, he reported in September 1969 to the NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. He was promoted to commander in July 1973. He served as the capsule communicator for all three crewed Skylab Missions in 1973, and for the joint U.S/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz docking mission in 1975. He then served as pilot for space shuttle approach and landing tests with test shuttle Enterprise, making one captive approach on top of a Boeing 747 and then two glide approaches and landings.

Promoted to captain in July 1980, he served as a backup pilot for the first space shuttle mission (STS-1) in 1981. In November 1981, he was the pilot for the second space shuttle mission (STS-2) in Columbia, marking the first time a space vehicle had been reused for another mission while also setting the world circular orbital altitude record. In August–September 1983, he was the commander of space shuttle mission STS-8 in Challenger, a mission that included the first night Shuttle landing.

In October 1983, Captain Truly was assigned as the first commander of the newly established Naval Space Command, Dahlgren, Virginia, which had been stood up at the direction of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Watkins. In March 1984, Truly was designated a rear admiral (lower half) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. In October 1984, Naval Space Command became the naval component command in U.S. Space Command. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 January 1986.

Following the space shuttle Challenger disaster on 28 January 1986, Rear Admiral Truly was ordered back to NASA to lead the investigation and then the “Return to Flight” program, with the title of Associate Administrator for Space Flight, Office of Space Flight. The Challenger accident (mission STS-51-L), which killed all seven aboard, was the tenth mission for Challenger and the 25th overall for the space shuttle program. Determining the technical problem responsible for explosion did not take long, but identifying and correcting the organizational and cultural problems at the root of the problem took much longer.

Rear Admiral Truly was designated a rear admiral (two-star) in May 1987 and promoted to rear admiral in 1 December 1987. On 28 September 1988, space shuttle Discovery launched on shuttle mission STS-26 (the seventh for Discovery) for the first shuttle flight since the Challenger accident. For his efforts, Truly was awarded the Collier Trophy and the President’s Citizen Medal by President Reagan. He retired from active duty on 1 July 1989 in the grade of vice admiral.

In July 1989, Vice Admiral (Ret.) Truly became the first former astronaut appointed to be NASA Administrator, the eighth person to hold the position. Among numerous accomplishments, he broke an internal NASA argument by ordering the unmanned Voyager 1 space probe (launched in 1971) to take a last picture of earth at a distance of 3.7 billion miles, with the photograph known as the “Pale Blue Dot.” (Voyager 1 remains in interstellar space, still heading away from our solar system, at a distance of 15 billion miles in January 2024.) However, plans for the future international space station (ISS) were becoming problematic due to escalating costs and loss of congressional support (the first ISS module would launch in 1998.) In addition, there was increasing friction between Truly and Vice President Dan Quayle’s National Space Council over the direction of the space program. In late January 1992, the Vice President requested that Truly step down and accept an ambassadorship. Truly considered the offer but declined. On 12 February 1992, Vice Admiral Truly was fired as the Administrator of NASA.

Vice Admiral Truly’s awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit (two awards); Meritorious Service Medal; Meritorious Unit Commendation; Air Force Outstanding Unit Commendation; NASA Distinguished Service Medal (NASA’s highest award); NASA Distinguished Flying Cross; NASA Space Flight Medal (two awards); NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal; NASA Exceptional Service Medal (two awards); Navy Expeditionary Medal (Cuba); National Defense Service Medal; and the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Cuba.)

During his career, Vice Admiral Truly flew 7,500-plus flight hours, with 304 arrested recoveries on aircraft carriers.

Following his departure from NASA, Truly served as vice president of the Georgia Institute of Technology and director of the Georgia Technology Research Institute, Atlanta. In 1997, he became director of the Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory and executive vice president of MRI Global (Midwest Research Institute) in Golden, Colorado, retiring from there in 2005.

In May 2007, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a member of the military advisory board on the subject of threats to U.S. national security posed by global climate change. In 2010, he was appointed to the board of trustees of the Colorado School of Mines by the governor of Colorado, serving as vice chairman of the board. He was also a Golden Eagle Emeritus.

Although Vice Admiral Dick Truly’s tenure as NASA Administrator ended on a sour note, he was to the end known as a man of great integrity, with the courage of his convictions, and with an enormous body of expertise and experience to back up those convictions. His forced resignation in 1992 was viewed within NASA as a great loss—at a particularly critical time. On his retirement from active duty in 1989, he was given a rare retirement promotion to vice admiral (known in days gone by as a “tombstone promotion”). It was, however, extremely well-earned.

His entire career as a Navy pilot and astronaut was spectacular, but his finest hour came when he was called back to NASA after the Challenger disaster and given the task of “righting the ship,” getting the program back on track, and resume flying space shuttle missions—safely. This was an extraordinarily difficult task, requiring extraordinary leadership. The technical problem that caused the disaster was quickly determined, but correcting a culture that had come to allow unnecessary risk taking (influenced by bad publicity over delays and even political pressure—and aggravated by systemic underfunding of NASA relative to the complexity of the mission) took a lot longer. Nevertheless, between 1986 and 1988, Vice Admiral Truly brought the shuttle program back to life. The courage of his convictions would cause him to run afoul of the National Space Council, chaired by the Vice President, which had far less expertise than he did, but nevertheless had a very different vision for the future of the space program. With his solid engineering grounding, he resisted some of the council’s “innovative” ideas (inflatable space craft?) as well as the pressure for speeding up programs and reducing cost at the same time (factors in the Challenger disaster). In the end, Vice Admiral Truly did what he believed was right rather than what was politically expedient and set a great example of the Navy core values of honor, courage, and commitment. The Navy, the space program, and the nation are better for his dedicated service.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Truly.