Richard H. Truly, the former astronaut who brought NASA back from catastrophe after the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, has resigned as head of the space agency after a series of bitter disputes with White House officials over the future of the space program.
The retired Navy vice admiral has locked horns repeatedly with the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, over NASA's priorities, according to various sources.
Mr. Truly met for half an hour with President Bush Monday night and shortly thereafter submitted a brief letter resigning the post he has held for three years.
The White House released the letter yesterday, but it offers no explanation why Mr. Truly is resigning just as the agency is preparing to do battle with Congress over its budget. The resignation will take effect April 1, so the agency will be without either a director or a deputy director during critical appropriations hearings in Washington.
Several sources said Mr. Truly no longer had the president's confidence and was forced out in the culmination of a long dispute with White House officials.
"He was very good for the agency, but there was a widespread feeling he had to step aside," said John M. Logsdon, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington.
Mr. Truly has been particularly troubled over who should set space policy. By law, that responsibility lies with the White House's National Space Council, but prior to the Bush administration the council deferred to NASA, thus allowing the agency to set its own policy.
In recent years, the council has sought to steer the agency toward such ambitious goals as sending humans to Mars and establishing a permanent base on the moon. Mr. Truly had serious doubts about both of those goals and instead sought to emphasize the space shuttle program and the Space Station Freedom, which has climbed in cost from $8 billion to at least $40 billion.
"He was fighting for a vision that was out of step with what the country was willing to pay for," said Mr. Logsdon, referring to the shuttle and the space station.
Mr. Truly frequently clashed with White House officials who also backed the space station but wanted to emphasize Mr. Bush's bolder --and even more expensive -- plan to send humans to Mars.
Mr. Truly, 54, was especially fond of the space shuttle. He served as pilot aboard the second flight in 1981, when the vehicle was still relatively untested, and he commanded a shuttle on the first night launch in 1983.
Other sources said Mr. Truly lacked the charisma and leadership needed to win congressional support for NASA's programs and to recharge an agency that has seemed adrift in recent years.