James W. Kennedy

Ad Astra Per Aspera

Inducted in 2009

In 2007, James W. Kennedy retired after four years as the eighth director of the Kennedy Space Center. Even he admits that he never thought as a young co-op student in 1968 that he would begin and end his career at “our nation’s gateway to exploring, discovering, and understanding our universe.” In fact, his desire to attend Auburn University led him to NASA. While at the University of South Florida, Kennedy’s student work gave him the opportunity to transfer to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He took the job, hoping it would open doors at Auburn.

His first class at Auburn with Professor Winford Swinson was transforming for Kennedy. “After one hour with this guy, I was a different person. I had two hours before my next class and I rushed home to study the material we had covered. If you had known the former Jim Kennedy, you would have known that was totally inconsistent with my usual behavior.” He continued to work at Marshall Space Flight Center and became a stellar student, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Auburn in 1972. After being called to active duty in the U.S. Air Force, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Georgia Southern University in 1977.

Kennedy worked for three years with Emerson Electric before recruitment efforts by NASA were finally successful. He returned to Marshall to work in the new Project Control Office of the Space Shuttle Projects Office. His work there led to increasingly responsible assignments. The combination of engineering expertise, passion for space, and outstanding leadership skills launched his career.

From 1982 to 1997, Kennedy served as chief of various Space Shuttle program offices. His tenure there made him a key figure in the first Space Shuttle launch in 1981 and in the return to flight initiative after the Challenger accident in 1986. After one year as deputy director of science and engineering, Kennedy was named director of Marshall’s Engineering Directorate, which provided integrated technical services and skills to support programs, such as the Space Shuttle, Chandra X-ray Observatory, and International Space Station.

In 2001, Kennedy was selected to serve as deputy director of Marshall Space Flight Center, and two years later, he was named the director of the Kennedy Space Center. At that point, the space agency was at a crossroads. Public confidence was low following the Columbia disaster, and questions were raised that NASA’s own culture was making spaceflight unsafe. Using his legendary leadership skills, Kennedy worked to turn the negatives of the NASA culture, which had stifled objections that might lead to delays, into an optimistic attitude tempered by realism. This has served the organization well in meeting President Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” initiative, which includes the completion of the International Space Station and putting a man on Mars.

Kennedy and his wife, Bernadette, are currently enjoying retirement in Cocoa Beach, where he grew up watching the first NASA rockets head into space.

View Other AEHOF Members