Merit of space shuttle's latest flight questioned Main goal of $1 billion mission is deployment of $4 million craft

October 22, 1992|By William J. Broad | William J. Broad,New York Times News Service

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- As six astronauts and the space shuttle Columbia were declared ready for a 10-day voyage, questions were raised yesterday about whether the great risks and costs of a shuttle flight were justified for a mission that seems extraordinarily modest.

The main goal of the mission, which is to be launched at 11:16 a.m. today, is to deploy a two-foot, $4 million satellite described by the space agency as looking like a large golf ball.

Its mirrored surface is to reflect laser beams used to study movements of the Earth's crust. The satellite was built by the Italian Space Agency and matches one lofted in 1976 on an unmanned Delta rocket.

Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration defended the mission as having great merit, saying they were honoring a commitment made long ago to the Italians and doing experiments that could pave the way for important work.

But private analysts said the mission's overall goals seemed slight given the cost of each shuttle flight, estimated at up to $1 billion, and the chance of a catastrophic failure -- put by NASA at 1 in 78.

They said an unmanned rocket would cost far less and eliminate the risk to astronauts, and that the mission should have been scrapped or delayed until more experiments of substance could be added.

They said the underlying problem is that years of poor planning have left the fleet of winged spaceships with little of substance to do.

A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, declined to defend the flight and said the Bush administration last year unveiled a plan meant to limit shuttle cargoes. But the policy's effects would not be evident for a few years because shuttle payloads were booked so long in advance.

The Bush administration's National Launch Policy calls for the shuttles to be used only on missions that require the spacecraft's unique abilities or the presence of humans.

It expands on decisions made after the 1986 Challenger accident, in which seven astronauts died, to remove commercial and military payloads from the nation's winged spaceships and to make sure the remaining scientific missions justified the risks.

Yesterday at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA officials were repeatedly asked at a news conference whether this mission met the cost-and-risk criteria. They said it did, even though the shuttle's 60-foot payload bay is clearly far from full.

Leonard S. Nicholson, NASA's shuttle director, said a main rationale for the flight was aiding the development of a six-foot, Italian-made rocket that is to boost the science satellite into a higher orbit. The rocket project, he said, was begun before the Challenger disaster.

"We certainly intended, and have fulfilled, the commitment to fly those payloads that were specifically designed for the shuttle," he said. "So I don't see this as any deviation from the policy."

In an interview, Louis O. Caudill, NASA's program manager for the satellite, said the rocket project was started by the Italians in 1984 and was originally designed for launching small commercial payloads.

"We're honoring a commitment we made to the Italians, and that's important," he said.

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