NASA may be forced into renaissance Problems demand change, critics say

September 05, 1993|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- These might have been glory days for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The Mars Observer should have begun mapping the red planet last week, while the Jupiter-bound Galileo probe was to beam back images of asteroids to Earth. The space shuttle's %o commanders, too, could well have been crowing over the completion of their seventh mission this year, if all had gone according to plan.

Instead, the $1 billion Observer spacecraft is lost, the main antenna on Galileo is jammed and the space shuttle program is still having trouble getting off the ground. Only three flights have been completed this year. And more trouble may be in store for the beleaguered agency.

The difficult December mission to fix the blurry Hubble space telescope is fraught with risk and may have to be postponed because of the space shuttle's delays, although NASA officials vow there will be no change in the schedule.

Meanwhile, NASA is facing a tough fight to win money from a tight-fisted Congress that may have little patience with this recent string of mishaps. This year, NASA will spend $14.1 billion, a $5 billion increase from five years ago. By contrast, the increase in government spending for the popular National Park Service was only one-tenth as much over the same period.

Soon after legislators return from their summer break this week, the Senate will decide whether to kill the controversial space station -- often attacked as little more than congressional pork floating high above Earth. Even supporters admit that the loss of the Observer probe provides new ammunition for space station opponents in what is expected to be a tight vote. Revised plans for the station are due out this week.

Steve Maran, an astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, concedes that "NASA's reputation for the ability to undertake these extreme technological challenges suffers" because of the problems.

"There are NASA jokes," adds Mr. Maran, who also serves as a spokesman for the American Astronomical Association. "This just didn't used to happen. Jay Leno wouldn't be taking off after us."

Friends in Congress

NASA employs 3,800 people at the Greenbelt facility. If the space station program is indeed eliminated, advocates say, the state could lose 125 jobs. Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski knows this, and she has proved to be one of the space station's -- and NASA's -- best friends as chairman of the Senate panel that doles out money for the agency.

Although Mr. Maran points out that many other projects have been great successes and that failed probes to Mars aren't at all unusual, he agrees, "The main thing we have to do is figure out what's been going wrong and take a look at what is on the drawing board and make sure it's right."

Later this month, hearings are also scheduled on "reinventing NASA" as part of Vice President Al Gore's larger mission to reinvent government. Democratic Rep. Ralph M. Hall of Texas, who chairs the House panel that will hold the hearing, said he plans to look into the situation.

Already, NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin has appointed a panel to investigate what went wrong with the Mars Observer, which was built by General Electric's Astro Space unit, now part of Bethesda-based Martin Marietta's recently acquired aerospace division.

Although a faulty transistor is one of the leading suspects, a leaky fuel tank could also have caused the failure. Many experts doubt whether the cause of the Mars Observer's blackout will ever be determined.

Among the other problems that NASA officials may have to explain in the next few months:

* The loss of a $67 million weather satellite this summer, which may have been doomed by a bad transistor from the same batch as the transistor aboard the Mars Observer.

* The failure of Galileo's main antenna, after the metal ribs that were to expand froze in place, forcing planners to switch to a backup antenna that sends out 30 percent less information.

NASA maintains that the broken antenna is simply a case of bad luck. But some scientists familiar with the program suggest that it was the repeated journeys, by truck, between Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., that damaged the antenna's lubricant after the Challenger disaster in January 1986.

* Twice in the past two months, launch of the shuttle Discovery had to be scrubbed during the last moments of the countdown, once during the dangerous seconds after the engines had begun firing. The engines of shuttle Columbia were also halted just seconds before blastoff back in March. A fifth attempt by Discovery is scheduled for Sept. 10.

* A report last month suggesting that the shuttle's engines are not as safe as previously believed and could threaten the safety of the spacecraft and the astronauts aboard.

* A ten-minute power failure aboard the shuttle Endeavour this summer accompanied by a burst of sparks after a mistaken command by a technician in Houston.

Acceptable risk?

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