CAPE CANAVERAL — Friends and family on Wednesday remembered Forrest McCartney as an American patriot who led a devastated Kennedy Space Center work force through the difficult recovery from the 1986 Challenger disaster.
McCartney, 81, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and the fourth director of KSC, died late Tuesday after a short illness. Family surrounded him when he passed away at a hospice in Palm Bay. His wife, “Miss Ruth,” the former Ruth Griffis of Memphis, Tenn., two daughters, Margaret and Worthy, and three granddaughters survive him.
At McCartney’s request, no services are planned.
“Forrest was a good man. He was a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather, a good friend and a great patriot,” said George English, the former director of KSC’s Executive Management Office and a close friend. “He was a good man.”
A strong, personable leader, McCartney, a longtime resident of Indian Harbour Beach, played a huge role in rebuilding the shuttle program after the Challenger disaster. His leadership paved the way to the successful launches of critical national security satellites, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Magellan Venus radar mapper, the Galileo Jupiter probe, the Ulysses solar explorer and, ultimately, the International Space Station.
“Everyone here at Kennedy will miss him greatly,” said KSC spokeswoman Lisa Malone. “He came into Kennedy at a critical time. It was a time when the workforce needed healing, and he knew that and took that to heart. He got the center through a difficult transition time — through the return to flight after Challenger.”
Born March 23, 1931, in Fort Payne, Ala., McCartney graduated from Gulfcoast Military Academy in 1949. He received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Alabama Polytechnic Institute — now known as Auburn University — in 1952. He earned his master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1955. By 1959, he was a key player in the National Reconnaissance Office’s classified Corona program. Now declassified, the program launched the world’s first spy satellites.
McCartney was at the Satellite Test Center in Sunnyvale, Calif., for the nation’s first successful Corona mission in 1960, responsible for controlling a photo reconnaissance spacecraft once deployed in orbit.
“He was there from the beginning,” daughter Margaret said.
In a 33-year Air Force career, McCartney played key roles in a number of military space programs. McCartney was competitive. An avid racquetball player, he was trouncing opponents just a month ago.
He’ll best be remembered for being loved not only on the fourth floor of KSC’s headquarters building, but on shop floors, too.
“I’ve always felt that the real work gets done on the floor, and not up in the front office,” McCartney told FLORIDA TODAY in a recent interview.
So after Challenger, McCartney spent at least half of his time visiting work sites around the center.
“He did all sorts of things. He wanted to do everything the guys out there did. He drove the crawler. He rappelled down the side of the Fire Tower with the SWAT team one time,” English said.
He climbed into SCAPE suits, the Self-Contained Atmospheric Pressure Ensembles, used by technicians working with hazardous shuttle propellant.
“I never realized it would be such a wonderful adventure. Not in my wildest imagination did I believe that I would have as much satisfaction, and just plain fun, as being the center director at Kennedy Space Center,” McCartney said.
Even in mourning, and recovery, the KSC work force accepted the military guy, and McCartney was grateful.
“They sort of adopted me, and I just loved every minute of it.”