Richard Witkin, 95; shared Pulitzer for Challenger coverage

Mr. Witkin, shown next to an X-15, was a member of a team that was honored for coverage of a space shuttle disaster.
New York Times/file
Mr. Witkin, shown next to an X-15, was a member of a team that was honored for coverage of a space shuttle disaster.

NEW YORK — Richard Witkin, a longtime aviation reporter for The New York Times who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for coverage of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, died Thursday in Marlborough, Mass. He was 95.

His son Gordon confirmed the death.

Mr. Witkin was on staff from 1954 until his retirement in 1989. For nearly all that time, except for a brief tenure in the late 1960s as the newspaper’s chief New York political reporter, he wrote about flight: jet travel, the space age, and the Cold War background against which midcentury aeronautics inevitably played out.


In his 2003 memoir, “City Room,” Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of the Times, called Mr. Witkin “a treasured member of the Times staff, always on top of breaking aviation news and invariably ahead of everyone else in the field of space exploration.”

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Among the signal events Mr. Witkin covered for the Times were the bombing of a United Airlines flight in 1955 by John Gilbert Graham, killing all 44 people aboard, including the intended target, Graham’s mother; the history-making flight in 1961 of Alan B. Shepard Jr., the first American in space; and the orbiting of the earth in 1962 by John H. Glenn Jr., the first American to do so.

Mr. Witkin was a member of the team of journalists from the Times that won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for coverage of the aftermath of the Challenger’s explosion shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. In announcing the award, Columbia University, which administers the Pulitzer Prizes, praised the team for “stories that identified serious flaws in the shuttle’s design and in the administration of America’s space program.”

Richard Witkin was born Aug. 8, 1918, in New York City. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard, he earned a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

In World War II, Mr. Witkin served with the Army Air Forces in Italy as a B-24 pilot, flying 33 combat missions and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with five oak-leaf clusters.


He worked for The Detroit Free Press, radio station WOV in New York, and United Press International, for which he covered the United Nations, before joining The New York Times, where Mr. Witkin was variously a reporter, a rewrite man, an aerospace editor, and transportation editor.

Mr. Witkin’s wife, the former Kate Friedlich, whom he married in 1943, died in 2006. Mr. Witkin, who lived for many years in Harrison, N.Y., and most recently in Marlborough, leaves his two sons, Gordon and Tom; a brother, William; and four grandchildren.