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Rethinking space agency's role

Launch director Gene Thomas sits in his office overlooking Launch Complex 39 and recalls the night he ran the fateful Challenger countdown. Choosing his words carefully, he explains, ``Somebody testified [before the Rogers Commission that] there were three things that the launch director should have seriously given consideration to that night. One of them was ice on the pad. And I was close to that. . . . Another one was the recovery ships were having trouble [with heavy seas]. . . . We worked that.'' He pauses, then adds dryly, ``The third one was the O-rings. And I never was told anything about the O-rings.''

Failure of the O-ring seal on a shuttle solid-rocket booster triggered the Challenger disaster. And as the investigation led by William P. Rogers has shown, the concern that some engineers had about possible low-temperature damage to that seal never reached the right people.

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The system had let a conscientious launch director down. Now, Mr. Thomas says, he and his team are going into every phase of their operations to correct every flaw they can find. He says they're determined to ``be a better launch team than we've ever been.''

Over at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, astronaut Bruce McCandless, whose personal safety is at stake, takes a similar view. He admits that the astronauts ``were a bit surprised by some of the revelations.'' But he says, ``Basically, I have a great deal of confidence in the integrity and in the technical ability of NASA management. I'm sure by reexamining all this stuff in great detail, we will, in fact, get the problem solved and get going again.''

These men, who view the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from quite different perspectives, share a conviction held widely throughout the agency. They realize that the importance of NASA to the United States transcends its current troubles. It's too valuable a national asset to be allowed to decay. They want to help their country make the most of it.

It's a conviction that many outside experts share. They stress the need to fix the faults the Rogers Commission uncovered. Yet they also see a larger issue. Is even a reformed NASA the right agency to operate the shuttle? Or do the distractions of running an orbital ``bus service'' weaken its ability to help the country get the best return from its investment in its civilian space program? NASA is one of the world's premier research-and-development resources. How should it best be used?

Management scholar Erasmus H. Kloman, recently retired from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), warns that ``in the agonizing about the explanation for the technical failure . . . and who is responsible for mistakes in judgment, the nation is in danger of losing sight of what will happen to NASA as an institution and the civilian space program as a resource. Not many Americans are fully aware of how vital this program is to the nation's political economy.''

In a study he has made of NASA's evolution, he explains that the agency's ``importance can be demonstrated by many sets of values.'' These include:

Economic values: Of roughly $111 billion in US funds poured into the program over 27 years, nearly 90 percent have gone to US industry and to scientific and academic institutions. ``The . . . investment has returned many times that amount into the economy.''

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Geopolitical values as an element in foreign policy: NASA is partner to more than 1,000 agreements with 135 countries and international organizations. ``Cooperation in space science has become a critical element in US relations with its major allies, . . . the third world, and the Soviet Union and other communist countries.''

Scientific values: ``Expanding man's knowledge of the universe is the highest and most rewarding goal of the space program. . . . Those pictures alone [of Earth isolated in space] added enormous impetus to the efforts to raise environmental consciousness throughout the world.''

Inspirational values: ``The space program has become a great source of national pride.''

Leadership values: ``NASA [symbolizes] . . . the nation's scientific and technological leadership.''

A consensus has emerged, within NASA and among outside space experts, that the best way to maintain these space-program assets is through a mix of unmanned rockets and manned vehicles; total reliance on the shuttle for launch services was a mistake.

NASA, says space analyst Ray Williamson of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), is at its best pushing back scientific and engineering frontiers. That means developing rockets, not running an operational launch service.

``The issue for NASA in becoming an operator is, `Do we go for the system that works or do we push the technology to the limit?' It's really tough for the managers to think in an operational mode,'' he says. If NASA were to operate a new space transportation system, he says, ``I would be concerned that NASA . . . might reach too far and leave the operational business a little bit behind,'' as it did with the shuttle.

Kloman notes that NASA management has, itself, considered hiving off shuttle operations. But they are embedded in the agency and are hard to extricate. Nevertheless, NASA chief James Fletcher, concerned over funding, has talked of encouraging private investment in new unmanned rockets and even a new shuttle.

The question of what NASA should do can't be fully answered until the country resolves the larger question of what it wants its space program to do. Several OTA studies, among other analyses, have repeatedly stressed this in recent years. Without agreed national goals, Mr. Williamson says, NASA has tended to focus on means rather than ends. For example, he says, ``Putting the shuttle in an operational mode became an end in itself.''

Meanwhile, the Rogers Commission urges ``that NASA continue to receive the support of the administration and the nation. The agency constitutes a national resource that plays a critical role in space exploration and development. It also provides a symbol of national pride and technological leadership.''

Ninth of 10 articles. Next: Space goals -- d'ej`a vu? CHART: Major NASA facilities 1. NASA headquarters, Washington, D.C. Responsible for overall planning, administration, and review of all agency programs. 2. Ames-Moffett Research Center, Mountain View, Calif. Specializes in research aimed at developing new space, aeronautical technology. Also oversees work at Ames-Dryden Flight Research Facility. 3. Ames-Dryden Flight Research Facility, Edwards, Calif. Responsible for flight tests of new aircraft technology and avionics, including initial approach and landing tests for shuttle program. 4. Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Responsible for space-Earth science research and applications. Also operates 12 global tracking stations and is home to the National Space Science Data Center. 5. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Responsible for designing, testing, and operating automated deep-space probes and their Earth-based communications and tracking network. JPL also conducts research for the Defense and Energy Departments, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institutes of Health. Operates under contract to NASA and is staffed by the California Institute of Technology. 6. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas Lead center for the US manned-spaceflight program. Responsible for design and testing of manned space vehicles, selection and training of astronauts, and planning and conducting manned missions. 7. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla. Center for final assembly, testing, and launch of manned and unmanned space vehicles. 8. KSC Space Transportation System Resident Office, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. NASA's liaison with US Air Force shuttle launch facility at Vandenberg. Supports Air Force in design, construction, and activation of its shuttle facility and helps plan for all shuttle cargo operations at Vandenberg. Reports to Kennedy Space Center. 9. Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va. Researches and develops advanced technologies for aircraft and spacecraft, with special attention given to environmental effects, performance, range, safety, and economy. 10. Lewis Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio Lead center for research and development of aircraft propulsion, space propulsion, space power, and satellite communications technologies. 11. Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. Primarily responsible for developing launch vehicles, including the engines for the space shuttle. Also plays key role in developing shuttle payloads and concepts for space station. 12. Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, La. Primarily responsible for engineering and assembly of shuttle's external fuel tank. Responsible to Marshall Space Flight Center. 13. National Space Technical Laboratories, Miss. Responsible for support and testing of large rocket propulsion systems, including the shuttle main engines. Also deeply involved in space-based Earth resources research and supports space station project. 14. Slidell Computer Complex, Slidell, La. Supports the Michoud assembly facility with computer analysis. 15. Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md. Operated for NASA by Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. Responsible for processing, analyzing, and displaying data from the Hubble Space Telescope, when it is launched. 16. Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va. Launch site for suborbital sounding rockets with scientific payloads. Also coordinates NASA's scientific-balloon projects. 17. White Sands Test Facility, White Sands, N.M. Supports space shuttle propulsion system, power system, and materials testing. Reports to Johnson Space Center.

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