James R. Thompson Jr., the fifth director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, died Tuesday. He was 81.
Thompson, a Greenville, S.C., native, first joined Marshall Space Flight Center in 1963 as a systems engineer for the Saturn Apollo launch vehicles. He was chosen to manage the Space Shuttle Main Engine Project in 1974 and served in that position though the initial shuttle flights.
Thompson left NASA in 1983 and worked at Princeton University until 1986's Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, when he took a furlough from the university and worked on the team investigating the accident. He was appointed director of Marshall in September 1986.
Thompson served as director of Marshall from September 1986 until July 1989, when President George H.W. Bush named him a deputy administrator for NASA.
He left NASA again in September 1991 and jointed Orbital Sciences Corporation. He served as president and chief operating officer of the company from 1999 until 2011, and he retired in 2013.
Thompson is survived by his wife, Sherry Gray Thompson; children James Thompson III, Scott Thompson and Paige Moore; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Nov. 13 at First United Methodist Church in Huntsville. The funeral will follow at the church.