Henry 'Pete' Clements, retired Air Force colonel who worked on earliest NASA missions, dies

Henry Earl "Pete" Clements, a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute graduate who went on to become a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and associate director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, died of an acute cardiac event Aug. 10 in McMahan, Texas. He was 92.

Mr. Clements joined the Marine Corps as a teen, serving in the Pacific in the final years of World War II, and went on to become an Air Force officer after studying at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

He then spent two decades at NASA, working on the launches and mission control of the Mercury and Gemini missions, as a top aide to longtime NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher, and as a top administrator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“He just loved what he did,” said his daughter, Daryl C. Plevy of Northeast Baltimore. “The climate was one of ‘We’re all in this together regardless of where we sit, and we have this mission and it’s urgent and it’s meaningful.’ ”

Mr. Clements was born Nov. 13, 1925, the son of John B. Clements, an employee of Sun Life insurance, and Caroline Dunker Clements, who worked at Hale’s Seafood on Taylor Avenue. He grew up on Aisquith Street in Northeast Baltimore.

He graduated from Poly in 1942 and immediately enlisted in the Marines. He was sent to the Pacific Theater, where he worked in radio communications, but never saw combat before the war ended, Ms. Plevy said.

The experience instilled in him a love for serving his country, and a knack for math and engineering, she said. So when he returned to the U.S., he started applying to West Point, eventually enrolling in 1949. He served as president of his graduating class of 1953.

After graduation, he joined the U.S. Air Force, which at that time did not have its own training academy.

The Air Force sent him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he received a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1958, the same year President Dwight Eisenhower signed the law that created NASA.

With the “Space Race” between the U.S. and Soviet Union heating up, Mr. Clements was posted to the nation’s fledging space program. He worked in the space program in Houston and Florida and at NASA headquarters in Washington during the 1960s. In Washington, he served as executive officer to Dr. Fletcher, the NASA administrator, from 1971 to 1975, and again from 1986 to 1990, when Mr. Fletcher returned to NASA to right the agency following the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

Mr. Clements was known for being competent and good-natured, said Ed Andrews, a classmate at West Point and colleague at NASA.

“Whatever he worked on, he was right on top of,” said Mr. Andrews of New Orleans. “There was not a piece of paper that went to the administrator’s desk until Pete had reviewed it and given the administrator some notes on it.”

He served as technical assistant to the Johnson center director and then as the center’s associate director in the late 1970s and early 1980s, helping to oversee its administration and smooth operations. Fran Gentry LeGrande, his former secretary, said Mr. Clements could defuse any tense situation if problems arose.

“He had the greatest wit,” said Mrs. LeGrande, of Georgetown, Texas. “He was so good at injecting humor even in a serious situation.”

NASA awarded Mr. Clements with an Exceptional Service Medal, one of the agency’s highest honors, in 1980. He was also a recipient of the Air Force’s Legion of Merit.

But he was especially proud to receive Poly’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2002, Ms. Plevy said. He always had a fondness for his hometown, she said, hosting crab feasts for NASA colleagues in Houston and once arranging for space shuttle astronauts to visit the Inner Harbor and meet children.

He asked for donations to be made to Poly in his memory so that more students could follow in his footsteps, Ms. Plevy said.

In recent years, Mr. Clements lived at the Oak Crest retirement community in Parkville.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Sept. 28 in the Old Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. Inurnment with full military honors will follow in the chapel’s columbarium.

Along with Ms. Plevy, he is survived by two other children, Jay B. Clements of McMahan and Jill C. Thompson of Vienna, Md.; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His wife of 51 years, Vivian Mary Reckenberger Clements, died in 2004.

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