NASA Rocket Manager Named in Wrongful Death Suit to Retire

Times Staff Writer

Lawrence B. Mulloy, the rocket manager named in a $15.1-million negligence claim by the widow of one of the space shuttle Challenger's crew members, has decided to take early retirement, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced Wednesday.

Mulloy, 52, decided to retire early after he was assigned to a "lateral" position in space agency headquarters in Washington, NASA officials said. Mulloy has worked at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., since its creation in 1960.

On the eve of the Jan. 28 disaster, Mulloy vehemently challenged engineers who wanted to postpone the launch because of fear that cold weather might cause rocket seals to fail and trigger a catastrophe.

Singled Out for Criticism

He was manager of the solid rocket booster project at the time of the Challenger accident and later was reassigned as assistant director of science and engineering at Marshall.

Last month, the presidential commission that investigated the accident singled out Mulloy for criticism in the decision to launch and charged him with attempting to mislead the panel--a charge that Mulloy has denied.

The new NASA administrator, James C. Fletcher, subsequently reassigned Mulloy from his post at Marshall to one in Washington, where he was to assume a job as deputy director of the propulsion power and energy division in two months.

Jane Smith, the widow of Challenger pilot Michael J. Smith, named Mulloy in a $15.1-million wrongful death and personal injury claim against NASA, charging that he and other NASA employees should have known that a "catastrophic accident would likely occur" and yet failed to prevent it.

Unavailable for Comment

Mulloy could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But NASA officials said they did not believe that the claim triggered his decision to retire.

"He has been assigned a job in headquarters, and he decided not to take it so he retired," said Robert Ruhl, a NASA spokesman at Marshall. Ruhl described Mulloy's decision as a "personal" one, adding that he seemed cheerful in a conversation Wednesday.

Mulloy, who has worked for the federal government for 30 years, would have been eligible for full retirement benefits in three years, Ruhl said. Mulloy began his career in the Army after graduating from high school and later obtained degrees in engineering and public administration. By retiring early, he will receive a reduced annuity.

Mulloy became the third Marshall official to retire in the wake of the accident, following Marshall Space Flight Center Director William R. Lucas, who stepped down last month, and George B. Hardy, a deputy director at Marshall, who announced his retirement in May.

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