James C. Fletcher: Knowledge Lights the Way
April 1984

“James C. Fletcher: Knowledge Lights the Way,” Ensign, Apr. 1984, 26

James C. Fletcher:

Knowledge Lights the Way

When Pioneer 10 silently winged its way out of the solar system into interstellar space last year, it bore the stamp of Jim Fletcher.

When space shuttle missions flare skyward from Cape Canaveral, Florida, they, too, bear the mark of Jim Fletcher.

And when the artificial heart first began its soft click-click in the chest of a human, it was there in part through Jim Fletcher’s work.

His name may be familiar, but few Church members realize the extent to which Brother Fletcher has influenced some of the more momentous scientific achievements of our times. It would be reasonable to expect that as one of the nation’s leading space scientists, former president of the University of Utah, and former head of the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration, he might be easily recognized. But his unassuming dedication to whatever project is at hand, along with his indifferent attitude toward fame, has probably kept his name from becoming a household word.

Several decades ago, tall, lanky Jim Fletcher consciously committed his future to the advancement of science and to the progress it promised for mankind. It was never his goal to gain recognition, but along the way he has come to be known internationally as a scientist, pragmatist, futurist, and administrator par excellence.

Still, while his children might have an inkling of their father’s role in some of this quarter century’s most important events, even they probably are not aware of his influence in the scientific community and with every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. That’s due in part to the fact that Brother Fletcher doesn’t spend much time talking about his past. At sixty-four, he has one foot firmly planted in today and the other in mid-stride toward tomorrow.

But the past is telling, for if there were such a thing as a scientific nobility, then it would be accurate to say James Chipman Fletcher was born into it.

He arrived 5 June 1919, the third of six children for Lorena Chipman and Harvey Fletcher, a physicist working for Bell Telephone Laboratory in New York. Jim’s interest in science was encouraged from its beginnings by his father, who gave him lectures and his own chemistry lab. (Harvey Fletcher’s encouragement undoubtedly extended similarly to each of his children; all six of them earned academic degrees; four earned doctorates in science.)

Jim was given to scientific pranks, and no one was happy when he accidentally blew a hole in the basement floor. But his father was proud when, at fourteen, Jim built a small working radio. It was the same year his father, then director of physics at the Bell lab, became world famous as the inventor of stereophonic sound. The teenaged Jim accompanied his father to the second public demonstration of what Harvey Fletcher called “auditory perspective” for a Carnegie Hall audience that included many celebrities. “I must say I’ve never heard anything quite so spectacular as that since,” Jim commented.

He graduated from Bayside High School, New York City, in 1937. Next came two years of college at Brigham Young University, then a transfer to Columbia University, from which he obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1940. At the beginning of World War II, he was working on defense projects for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance. He did more classified defense work at Harvard University’s Cruft Laboratory before settling in at Princeton University in 1942, where he was an instructor and research physicist until after the war was over.

His spiritual life had been suffering, but at Princeton it changed for the better.

“I was a little bit rebellious growing up,” Brother Fletcher recalled. When he left home to attend school, he had become semi-active. He lacked a testimony of his own.

Part of the trouble, Brother Fletcher admitted, came from his intellectual and scientific approach to the Church. “The way scientists are trained, the only thing that you can believe is something that you can measure, deduce, or calculate,” he said. It was not difficult for scientists “to come to the conclusion that there is a creator of the Universe,” as Albert Einstein, a colleague at Princeton, affirmed. “But to come to the idea of a personal God is pretty hard for a scientist.”

Another Princeton colleague, Henry Eyring, would have none of Brother Fletcher’s doubts. The renowned chemist was a fellow Latter-day Saint, a friend of the younger scientist’s father, and the local branch president. Eventually, through many intellectual, scientific discussions, the two resolved differences Brother Fletcher thought he perceived between gospel doctrine and scientific discovery. But as a beginning, Brother Eyring began patiently working to bring his friend’s son back into full activity.

“He called me up and said, ‘Jim, where are you going to church?’ ‘I didn’t know there was one,’ I mumbled. He said, ‘Well, I’ll pick you up Sunday morning.’ What could I say? A little while later, he said, ‘Jim, we usually pay our tithing the first of the month. We’ll excuse you this month, but next month we’ll expect it.’ He kept going on that way. Finally I found myself a counselor in the branch presidency. Then he went on leave all summer and left me in charge of the branch. That’s when my testimony really began to grow.”

Within three years, Brother Fletcher’s acceptance of a teaching fellowship at the California Institute of Technology took him back to the West. That made possible a 1945 meeting, arranged by mutual friends, with Fay Lee of Brigham City, Utah.

The two dated off and on for a year. Once they decided to get married, they did it in ten days. The rush for the 2 November 1946 wedding was strictly a matter of scheduling to allow the two most influential men in James Fletcher’s life—his father and Brother Eyring—to be in the Salt Lake Temple as witnesses.

“I spent the first hours of our married life in the parking lot at CalTech,” Fay Fletcher recalled with a laugh, explaining that she had to wait there until 2 A.M. while her husband, a graduate student, finished schoolwork in a men-only building before they could leave on their honeymoon.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve, a friend of the family, commented that Sister Fletcher has had much to do with her husband’s success. “She is just a delight. She is as effervescent as he is shy. A very self-sufficient, friendly, gregarious woman.”

Southern California seemed a fine place to raise a family, and it was rapidly becoming a center for high technology work. So after Brother Fletcher earned his Ph.D. in physics from CalTech in 1948, he went to work for the Hughes Aircraft Company. He was the 120th person hired; when he left six years later, his division had grown to 25,600 employees.

The decision to join the Los Angeles-based Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation (now known as TRW, Inc.) in 1954 placed Brother Fletcher at the center of America’s guided missile program, which was being developed in ultra-secrecy. Since the corporation was under contract to the U.S. Air Force, he became, in effect, the chief electronics scientist for the nation’s nuclear missile work. He helped design its first intermediate-range missile, the Thor, and its first intercontinental missile, the Atlas. He supervised the electronics and guidance work on the follow-up ICBM, the Titan, and was program manager for development of the Minuteman missile, which makes up most of the United States’ present nuclear force.

“I’m a patriot,” he says quietly, explaining his early participation in the U.S. arms race with the Soviet Union. But the responsibility of being one of the men who “told the things where to land,” as he explained his role to a daughter, concerned Brother Fletcher. “At the time that we were developing these ICBMs, it really was quite nasty because we had to develop warheads to retaliate against the Russians in case they did something to us. But what do you do to them? You kill people, and that’s a nasty business. So scientists began to worry: What have we created here? Where is it going to end?”

The questions were being asked all across the U.S. in the early 1960s as citizens frantically built bomb shelters and the two superpowers came close to launching missiles during the 1962 Cuban crisis. Brother Fletcher became part of a touring panel of eminent scientists who visited various U.S. cities to discuss prospects of a nuclear holocaust. “Most of the scientists felt the end of the world was fifteen to twenty years away,” Brother Fletcher recalled.

In the middle of one of these seminars at the University of California at Los Angeles, something happened that became a turning point in his role as a scientist working for national defense. An elderly gentleman from the audience stood up and, as Brother Fletcher remembers it, said:

“Well, now, you fellows sound pretty awful. The end of the world is so soon! But you’re making an assumption I don’t accept. You’re assuming that there’s no way you can sit down with the Russians and talk about this. As far as I can tell, all the Russians I’ve met are pretty nice people. And they think of their country the same way you fellows think of your country. You ought to be able to gradually get them to come around toward your way of thinking and you come around to theirs. And when you do that, there won’t be any need for ‘mutual assured destruction.’”

Everybody got up and gave the man a standing ovation, Brother Fletcher said. “I was impressed. It was my father.”

James Fletcher became a consultant to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1961. He spoke with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the possibility of arms talks with the Soviet Union and had meetings with the Russians in their Washington embassy. In 1962, he joined a key scientific group attempting to resolve differences between the countries on treaty proposals, to clear the way for true disarmament.

Several treaties resulted, but the threat of nuclear holocaust is still substantial. “I’m looking for the day when we can really sit down with the Russians and there’ll be no more nuclear bombs,” Brother Fletcher said, a bit wistfully.

His life kept him busy, and he was often away on trips. “As luck would have it,” Sister Fletcher lamented, laughing, “he generally seemed to be away when family emergencies arose—when the dog died, or when the babies were born.” The couple has four children—Ginger, Sue, Stephen, and Barbara.

All of them, now married, recalled happy, sunny days in California. Weekend outings to the beach were frequent. “He’s a great bodysurfer,” said Barbara, “the best bodysurfer I know.”

Brother Fletcher’s interests include hiking, swimming (or almost anything to do with water), and tennis. But his main hobby then and now is reading about his two favorite subjects: ancient history and anthropology.

Barbara remembered as a toddler climbing onto his lap “when he was reading, which he did every night.” Whether it was Shakespeare or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he’d read out loud to the tots. “He wouldn’t think twice that it was something a six-year-old might not understand.”

His children are one of his top priorities. Commenting on the importance of prayer in life, he noted: “I think you should pray about things that are serious, like your children. When one of my children is going wrong, I pray for guidance on how to help.”

His daughter Barbara offered her own testimonial. “No matter what happened, or what kind of troubles I was having,” she said, “I don’t feel he was ever truly angry with me. I always had Dad there. He never turned his back on me.”

For the sake of himself and his family, Brother Fletcher made a conscious decision in 1960 not to become rich. He sold his share of Space Electronics Corporation, a thriving company he had formed two years earlier with an associate.

“I was afraid I was going to be wealthy,” he said. “I didn’t like the idea.” He was opposed to the pursuit of money as a goal. He thought his children might lose their sense of priorities if they were well-to-do, and he worried that his relationship with his wife would change.

He made a deal with Aerojet General Corporation that took him out of company ownership but left him as president and chairman of the board of its new Space General Corporation.

In 1964, he was offered the chance to become the eighth president of the University of Utah. The decision was not difficult. He said yes.

“He never took the jobs that offered the most money,” his daughter Sue observed, “but the ones that intrigued and interested him.” Too, Brother Fletcher felt he could make a contribution to the university, and he set out to do just that.

University statistics offer this gauge of growth during Brother Fletcher’s seven-year tenure as president: total enrollment increased by more than 50 percent, faculty by 60 percent, graduate student enrollment by 90 percent, campus acreage by 87 percent, and new buildings by 85 percent. Federal research grants tripled, while private donations quadrupled.

Perhaps because of his scientific background, Brother Fletcher felt it essential to build up the university’s technological and research base. He beefed up the computer sciences department and, to his continuing satisfaction, the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, whose Artificial Organs Division excited the world by successfully implanting the first artificial heart in a human.

The administrative road was not a smooth one, though. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, American academic institutions suffered some of the most turbulent years in decades, wracked by student demonstrations over the Vietnam War and college curriculum.

“Salt Lake was no exception,” Brother Fletcher recalled. But he was able to keep things relatively tranquil at the University of Utah. His method was simple: he spoke with the students as equals. “I spent a lot of time talking to the students—the ones who were honestly troubled,” he explained. If he was babysitting his children at home and they came, he invited them in for a discussion. When the students had a valid criticism or suggestion, to their amazement, he accepted it and made changes. He saw most of their “nonnegotiable demands” as manifestations of the students’ very “human need to be heard, to accomplish something, to contribute.”

His daughter, Ginger, saw all of this from a unique perspective. She attended the university and was a friend to some of the student leaders opposing her father’s policies. She said he never acted “at all rashly,” that the majority of the students who negotiated with him “to this day have a great deal of respect for him.”

Brother Fletcher said the secret of his success in different positions has been to find truly brilliant people and act as a human catalyst, inducing them to innovate together. “I’m really not all that smart as a scientist or all that good as an administrator. If I have any talent, it’s being able to collect people who have the potential of greatness, who other people think are a little bit strange, and put them together in a team that works. I made a career out of it.”

His exemplar in striving to find and magnify the best in others has been Jesus Christ. The Savior’s tolerance, patience, and encouragement to all men while he walked the earth has touched James Fletcher more deeply, he said, than he is capable of expressing.

Brother Fletcher’s openmindedness and ability to bring out the best in people were factors in President Richard M. Nixon’s recommendation of him as the fourth administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1971.

It was not an easy time for NASA. The public had become apathetic about space since man stepped on the moon. Congress and the president responded by cutting the NASA budget. Financing for space research dropped from four cents out of every tax dollar to seven-tenths of one cent.

Brother Fletcher immediately began selling the importance of progress in space, of man’s forever reaching beyond his grasp. His deputy administrator, George Low, now president of the famed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recalled that Brother Fletcher “was superb in meetings with the executive branch in selling NASA. Congress was looking inward, but Jim worked the system well.” Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater commented that Brother Fletcher “brought to NASA its first sense of business direction. He did a lot to establish solidness and good sense in the budget system and added immensely to the morale of NASA. He is very highly regarded and respected.”

He went on the public stump to build support for the space agency. “I would hate the footprints on the moon to be thought of as the pinnacle of our achievement,” he said. In one speech, he complained that the country’s sense of priorities was askew when scientists had to “defend with almost every breath the $3.3 billion spent on space research in a nation that spends $17 billion—five times as much—for tobacco products and cosmetics.”

He noted in another speech that there was a singular benefit beyond all the space program’s contributions to technology, one which could not be measured. “Like Columbus who set sail for the Orient and discovered a new world, we sent our astronauts to the Moon and rediscovered Planet Earth. It was a startling new perspective on lonely, lovely fragile Earth.” It made people realize how much we had to work together to save its resources.

Brother Fletcher presided over some immensely significant accomplishments as head of NASA from 1971 to 1977. Under his watch, the final three Apollo missions went to the Moon; Skylab experiments were performed, suggesting the possibility of human habitation of space; the Russians and Americans joined in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz manned space venture; and there was an unprecedented Viking mission to Mars.

Then there was the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, launched in 1972 on a 21-month mission to reach and inspect Jupiter. It survived the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, accomplished its mission within Jupiter’s huge belts of radiation and, despite pummeling by micrometeoroids, journeyed on. Surprising Brother Fletcher and others, the plucky little craft, after eleven years of travel, became the first man-made instrument to escape the solar system last June 13.

But James Fletcher’s most important and widely recognized contribution is the Space Shuttle program. When he joined NASA, the scientific community was split over which to build first: a space station or the Space Shuttle, meant to serve the station in Earth orbit. Both couldn’t be funded. Brother Fletcher chose the shuttle. It was he who personally convinced President Nixon to back the shuttle during a historic visit to San Clemente, California, 5 January 1972.

In his own quiet way, Brother Fletcher never ceased to be as effective a missionary for the Church as he was for NASA. “Everybody was generally aware of his church and his very strong religious beliefs,” recalled former Senator Harrison (Jack) Schmitt, an astronaut under Brother Fletcher. In fact, his religion had come up during his confirmation hearings when Senator John Stennis asked him if he were a Mormon. After Brother Fletcher’s acknowledgement, Senator Stennis added: “I never met a Mormon I didn’t like.”

“I always liked and respected Jim Fletcher because he was never untrue to the way he believed, but he wasn’t holier-than-thou either,” said Astronaut Tom Stafford.

Elder Maxwell related one of several incidents in which the NASA director seized a missionary opportunity. While Stephen Fletcher was on a mission to Japan, Brother Fletcher sent him a color satellite photo of the city in which he served. Elder Fletcher in turn presented it to the Japanese mayor. “That’s the kind of thing Jim would do without any particular fanfare,” explained Elder Maxwell. “He has been a real credit to the Church.”

Brother Fletcher gave up his government position in 1977 to accept a position at the University of Pittsburgh, where he holds an endowed chair. He serves on thirty-two boards and committees. Among the most important positions are those with Standard Oil Company, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Defense Science Board (which oversees Pentagon military projects), as well as the chairmanship of the Three Mile Island Safety Advisory Board, examining the safe use of nuclear energy. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan appointed him chairman of a blue-ribbon commission to study the technical possibilities of national defense in space.

In the 1950s, he was occasionally considered a “kook” for foreseeing communications satellites in geosynchronous orbits, men on the moon, the space shuttle, and other present realities. That foresight has earned him a reputation as a pragmatic futurist. So what challenges does he see in the future now?

He sees mankind living beyond the bounds of the earth. It is important, he has said, that men accept the challenge of building colonies in space.

He is excited about what an eleven-ton space telescope will find when it is placed in orbit during 1986 by a space shuttle. It will allow astronomers to see objects fifty times dimmer and seven times farther away from earth than those that are now visible to land-based telescopes peering out through atmospheric haze.

And Brother Fletcher; along with the other scientists, is a proponent of NASA and private efforts in SETI, or “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” exploration. Using radiotelescopes and computers, SETI enthusiasts will scan intergalactic space for a single-frequency transmission that might be a message sent long ago from a planet orbiting a distant star.

Some time ago, a Fletcher-ordered NASA study of SETI possibilities declared that “to undertake so enduring a program requires faith—faith that the quest is worth the effort.”

The attitude is typical of James Fletcher. For him, the quest has always been worth the effort. And the future holds no fear for a man of faith.

  • Dale Van Atta, father of three, is an Associate with newspaper columnist Jack Anderson and is the Gospel Doctrine teacher in the Sterling Park Ward, Oakton Virginia Stake.

His name may be familiar, but few Church members realize the extent to which James Fletcher has influenced some of the more momentous scientific achievements of our times.

James and Fay Fletcher. Brother Fletcher and his father, Harvey, the inventor of stereophonic sound; Harvey was 95 years old when this picture was taken.

In the launch room at Cape Kennedy for the Apollo 15 lift-off. The two men on the right are Wernher Von Braun and James Fletcher.