WASHINGTON -- NASA unnecessarily puts astronauts at risk by using the space shuttle to carry satellites that could be launched by unmanned rockets, an outside panel of experts said yesterday.
The result is likely to be another disaster like the 1986 Challenger explosion.
"It's a mistake to risk seven people and one-fourth of our shuttles to place a commercial communications satellite into space," said Norman Augustine, chairman of the 12-member Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program. "The laws of probability . . . suggest that we can't count on not losing another space shuttle in the not-too-distant future."
In a report recommending new priorities for the space agency, the committee said a new generation of unmanned boosters should be developed, plans for the $38 billion space station should be scaled back, and NASA programs should be restructured.
To do that, it said, the president and Congress need to commit to a 10 percent increase in funding per year for NASA, as well as helping refocus public expectations away from heavenly heroics to solid science.
Vice President Dan Quayle, chairman of the president's Space Council, and NASA Administrator Richard H. Truly said they would begin immediate work on the recommendations. Mr. Quayle said the report would give NASA "a needed shot in the arm," and he said the committee would be reconvened in six months to review NASA's progress.
But Mr. Truly later told reporters he had problems with some parts of the report, such as its suggestion that simply scrapping production of the seventh shuttle will provide the money to develop an unmanned heavy-lift rocket.
As for the other recommendations, Mr. Truly said: "It's too early to describe what budgeting or program actions we will take."
Representative Bill Nelson, D-Fla., outgoing chairman of the House space science and applications subcommittee, said the panel's conclusions echoed concerns many members of Congress have expressed in recent years and should lead to needed reforms.
But he said the call for a guaranteed 10 percent annual increase in funding "is a tough one to answer because there are so many variables in the future." For 1991, Congress gave NASA $13.8 billion, an 8.5 percent increase from 1990, which was lower than the amount President Bush requested and what Mr. Nelson's committee recommended.
Mr. Augustine, the chairman of Martin-Marietta, a major rocket builder and NASA contractor, said he abstained from the discussions and voting on the portion of the report dealing with the new unmanned rocket. Otherwise, he said, the committee's votes were unanimous.
"We believe America's civil space program is at a crossroads today," the report states. It supports the long-term goals of establishing a base on the moon and making a manned voyage to Mars, but says they must be planned for more realistically.
Referring to a rash of recent NASA problems, such as the ill-focused mirror in the Hubble space telescope and hydrogen leaks that caused shuttle launch delays, Mr. Augustine said: "We find that NASA is neither as troubled as some would suggest nor nearly as good as it will have to be to carry out the kind of space programs that we've recommended."
The over-reliance on the space shuttle is the most dangerous element, Mr. Augustine said.
"The space shuttle, as everyone recognizes, is an extremely capable system for missions where human beings are required. On the other hand, our committee believes that it should be limited in use only to those cases where there's important value added by human presence," he said.
Highlights of the report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program:
* Develop an unmanned rocket to launch satellites and carry other cargo, decreasing reliance on the shuttle except for exploratory missions requiring humans.
* Redesign the proposed space station to focus solely on life-science experiments and essential gravity-free research.
* Shift priorities to emphasize primarily science and exploration, leaving commercial ventures to private enterprise.
* Retain the long-term goal of reaching Mars but ease back on launch deadlines and recognize funding limitations.
* Give NASA greater flexibility to hire and retain the nation's best scientists, even if that means expanding joint research efforts with colleges to let scientists serve on faculties.