NASA in Limbo

February 18, 1992

Richard Truly's ouster as head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration raises central questions about U.S. space policy. The vision espoused by former astronaut Truly may not, as one observer put it, have been "compatible with the realities of the world" as defined by the Bush administration, but he did put the space agency back on its feet after the 1986 Challenger disaster knocked it to its knees. A string of 20 successful shuttle missions on Mr. Truly's watch, including in-orbit rescue of experiments gone awry, speak well for his leadership and administrative abilities.

One of the criticisms has been that NASA is too dominated by an "old guard" enthralled with the astronaut corps. But this should not mean that years of experience within NASA make someone less competent than an "outsider." After all, astronauts complained after the Challenger disaster that they had been excluded from decisions that directly affected their chances of survival. Increased insider input, all concerned now acknowledge, has contributed to NASA's recent successes.

Mr. Truly's departure boils down to politics. As White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner said, "Truly wasn't doing the president any good." NASA's 1993 budget request cut out such things as the Magellan Venus probe, which runs out of money this year. The $450 million orbiter, which has revealed to us vast amounts of new insights on the stormy planet with its radar survey, was supposed to study variations in Venus' mass, but that secondary mission has been scrubbed. Ditto for a $3 billion effort to develop new shuttle boosters. Mr. Truly had staunchly advocated such NASA-backed "big science" programs, but Vice President Dan Quayle reportedly pushed for smaller-scale programs. His National Space Council often did not see eye-to-eye with the NASA hierarchy.

Mr. Truly will still be on board for congressional budget debates, but Congress is likely to be skeptical of making any long-term commitments. White House space policy is shifting, but its new focus has not yet been determined. This could lead to some rough going for NASA on Capitol Hill.

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