The loss of the shuttle Challenger has further threatened the United States’ already-endangered leadership in space research and technology, a panel of educators and industry executives reported Wednesday.
Reporting on a yearlong study, the panel called for the United States to press forward with exploration and the commercial development of space. The task force, which wrote its report four days before the Jan. 28 Challenger explosion, decided to go ahead with its planned release, making only minor insertions alluding to the accident.
The panel, formed under the aegis of the Business-Higher Education Forum, reported that the shuttle program had already fallen short of its projections because budget limitations restricted the fleet to four orbiters instead of the five originally planned.
“Even before the loss of Challenger and its crew, the limited availability of orbiters and the slow flight rate buildup have impacted negatively on the shuttle program,” the task force said. “Operational expenses have not been reduced to forecast levels, causing NASA in 1985 to raise its price to commercial and foreign customers to $71 million per launch for full use of the cargo bay.”
“The administration has proposed a rate of $74 million starting in October, 1988,” the panel said. “Reducing the cost of access to space will be a key issue in future space development.”
The issue has already become important to the investigation of the shuttle accident. Chief astronaut John W. Young charged in a widely circulated controversial memorandum last month that officials had sacrificed safety in their eagerness to meet increasingly ambitious flight schedules.
Young has refused to discuss his blunt criticism publicly but is expected to address the issue today when he appears before the presidential commission investigating the shuttle disaster.
The task force study released Wednesday was launched by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, during his term as head of the Business-Higher Education Forum. The 26-member panel was made up primarily of university presidents and chairmen of major industrial corporations.
Concern About Delays
The report also expressed concern about delays and budget cuts already being encountered by the proposed U.S. space station, planned as the “centerpiece” of the nation’s space program over the next decade.
It suggested that budgetary restraints could seriously reduce the ability of a permanently manned orbiting station to do useful work.
“Current estimates based on cost projections, budgetary limitations and configuration studies indicate that the six- to eight-person crew will spend its time managing space station control and operations; conducting diagnostics and repairs; performing logistics and maintenance; mounting extravehicular activities for assembly of structures; servicing supporting transportation elements; attending to space shuttle arrivals; tending and making observations about experiments and industrial projects; communicating with Earth stations; as well as exercise, rest, recreation, eating and sleeping.”
“It is clear,” the panel added, “that without relief, very little productive time will be available after all ‘overhead’ functions are accounted for.”