WASHINGTON — Noel Hinners knew that to save the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA had to be willing to kill it.

It was 1976, America’s bicentennial, but the nation’s celebratory mood did not extend to big-ticket astronomy projects — at least not as far as Congress was concerned. Hinners, who was then serving as NASA’s associate administrator for science, recommended NASA zero out the funding for the project — then known as the Large Space Telescope — in the agency’s 1977 budget proposal because Congress was hesitant to fully fund the program, a move that prompted astronomers to lobby Congress to add money for it. 

“I figured in my own little head that to get that [astronomy] community energized we’d be better off zeroing it out,” he recalled in a 2010 NASA oral history interview. “Voila, it worked.” 

Hinners, who died Sept. 5 at age 78 from cancer, played major roles on numerous NASA missions during his 40-year career.

As a newly minted geochemist with a Ph.D. from Princeton University, Hinners took a job with AT&T’s Bellcom in 1963 working on NASA’s Apollo program. He joined NASA in 1972 as director of lunar programs and by 1974 had become the agency’s associate administrator for space science. In 1979 he left NASA to become director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, returning in 1982 as director of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. From 1987 to 1989 he was NASA’s associate deputy administrator and chief scientist.

Hinners left NASA to work for Martin Marietta, becoming vice president of flight systems for Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems until his retirement in 2002. He was responsible for a number of NASA missions the company built, including the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander missions that failed in 1999.

“The ways we devised to lower cost turned out with the Mars ’98 disasters to be flawed,” he said in 2010. “I didn’t have enough experience on the industry side to foresee that — and maybe I wouldn’t have anyhow.” Several other missions were successful, including the 1999 Stardust comet sample-collection mission and 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Throughout his career, Hinners was an advocate for both robotic and human space exploration, for scientific and other reasons. “Why humans in space? To me it does go beyond the science,” he told the House Science space subcommittee during a 2008 hearing on NASA’s exploration plans. “You don’t transmit the human spirit through an antenna. You need to be there, in place, in person.”

Hinners is survived by his wife of 52 years, Dianna Platt Hinners, and two sons. 

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Jeff Foust has more than a decade of experience writing about space policy, entrepreneurial ventures and regulatory affairs. In 2001, he established spacetoday.net to aggregate and summarize the day's space-related news stories. In 2003, he started The...