Time for a Housecleaning at NASA

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

February 19, 1992|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- Rather than doing it nicely, the White House took the shabby route in ousting Adm. Richard Truly from the helm of NASA, making it evident that he was forced to resign. Appointed by George Bush, Admiral Truly took over the agency while it was still convalescing from the Challenger calamity and got it functioning again.

But he was part of the old megalomanic clique that got NASA into trouble in the first place; he was the first astronaut to head NASA. And though space operations have proceeded relatively smoothly under his regime, the agency remains inbred, provincial and bound for trouble.

The great failing of NASA has been its enchantment with majestic ventures predicated on the faith that Congress will provide, even after fancifully low price estimates are followed by crushing bills. The prime example is the space shuttle, which will be the centerpiece of NASA operations for years to come -- because its ravenous financial needs consumed support for virtually all other launch systems.

The shuttle provides a classic parable of high-technology and government. When it was on the drawing boards in the 1970s, NASA assured Congress that the fleet would fly as many as 60 missions a year, thus providing a voluminous cargo capacity that would dramatically reduce the costs of going into space. But, as a recent report by the General Accounting Office dryly points out, ''Realism forced several downward revisions in annual flight predictions.''

The first flight, in 1981, made it clear that the shuttle was a temperamental, fragile and cumbersome craft. In 1985, NASA reduced the projected flight schedule to 24 a year, by 1990. In 1986, after the Challenger accident, the planned figure dropped to 16 a year, by 1991. Actual flights in that year numbered 8, which is probably the most that NASA can muster, according to the General Accounting Office.

Reducing the number of planned flights has had calamitous financial effects. At 60 a year, each flight would cost about $50 million; at 8 a year, the cost per flight works out to $358 million. The costs of running the shuttle now consume about 25 percent of NASA's budget.

Admiral Truly inherited the shuttle mess and tried to make the best of it, but in the process he was intransigent about shaking NASA loose from its extravagant traditions and looking for other ways to use space.

When yet another blue-ribbon commission -- this one chaired by Norman Augustine, head of Martin Marietta -- advised NASA to focus on science, minimize reliance on the shuttle, and develop a new family of expendable launchers, NASA nodded and continued on its way.

The space station, conceived with the same fiscal irresponsibility as the shuttle, was finally reined in when Congress demanded a firm price, and set tight limits on the growth of annual expenditures.

The admiral's undoing is in large part attributed to the National Space Council, which provides Chairman Dan Quayle with a rare vice-presidential opportunity for tangible activity. Mr. Quayle has picked up on the theme that NASA has developed a tight little culture that's resistant to outsiders, no matter how bright and innovative their ideas may be. The council has pushed NASA to (( give serious attention to unconventional approaches to getting into space and working there -- such as inflatable space craft that would reduce launch weight while still providing the needed volume in space.

The National Academy of Sciences has criticized NASA for neglecting the development of robots and automated space instruments that could perform research without the costly presence of humans. But NASA, still dominated by the romance of humans in space, has adopted a wily tactic. Neglecting research in this area, it contends that machines are still too unsophisticated to do the job.

A warm presidential ceremony was the admiral's due for his service to NASA. It's time to break up the space agency's old-boy network. But it could have been done nicely.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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