NEW YORK — Forrest S. McCartney, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who played a central role in developing military spy satellites and the MX intercontinental missile system before being appointed head of NASA’s civilian-run Kennedy Space Center not long after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, died Tuesday in a hospice near Cape Canaveral, Fla. He was 81.
The cause was cancer, his daughter Worthy McCartney said.
General McCartney was given command of the space center 18 months after the Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members and leading to suspension of the shuttle orbiter program. His deployment from the ranks of a largely secret military space program made him the focus of initial apprehension in the parallel civilian space-exploration organization.
But historians of NASA credit him with rebuilding public confidence in manned space missions and helping to restore the morale of a shaken work force at Cape Canaveral. He directed an extensive review of construction and launching protocols, oversaw the first shuttle launching after the Challenger disaster, and became known as a relentless defender of Kennedy Space Center turf in the perennial struggle with other NASA power centers, including the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and NASA headquarters in Washington.
Confusion over the chain of command had been identified by investigators as one of the causes of the 1986 disaster. In a 2001 interview with the Kennedy Space Center’s oral history project, General McCartney referred to that problem in describing his efforts to make the Kennedy Space Center’s leaders first among equals in decision making, at leastfor launchings.
‘‘I just felt strongly that if the wheels came off, we would certainly be accountable, and properly so,’’ he said. That was one of ‘‘the things that I tried to turn around: not to be the dominant person, but that we were equal at the table. And whether we roll — that was our decision to make. And that was a constant fight, you know. But I think we wore them down.’’
Friction with NASA officials over policy and management issues eventually led to his resignation in 1991.
If he had never directed the space center, General McCartney would have been known as a pioneer of the US military’s unmanned space program. ‘‘He played a key role in getting the first reconnaissance satellites into space,’’ said Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote ‘‘A Fiery Peace in a Cold War,’’ a 2009 history of the secret space program led by General Bernard Schriever of the Air Force, whom General McCartney served as a top aide in the 1960s.
Schriever’s group is credited with a string of breakthroughs, including the first photo reconnaissance satellites, the first satellite mapping technology, and the first successful recovery of an orbiting object after its return to earth.
In the 1970s, General McCartney became program director for a project that established the ability of naval vessels and airplanes to communicate by satellite. A nuclear engineer by training, he became involved in the early 1980s in developing the MX intercontinental ballistic missile, known as the Peacekeeper.