Fletcher Backs New Shuttle but Balks at Mission Plans
President Reagan’s nominee to take command of the embattled National Aeronautics and Space Administration called Wednesday for construction of a new space shuttle to replace the ill-fated Challenger but refused to endorse NASA’s tentative plan to launch nine manned space missions in the first year after the shuttle fleet resumes flying.
James C. Fletcher, a former University of Utah president who served as space agency administrator from 1971 to 1977, made his remarks before a Senate Commerce Committee confirmation hearing.
He said he favors a shuttle fleet large enough to allow NASA to continue carrying commercial payloads into space as well as meet commitments to the military. In any event the U.S. space program will have to rely more heavily on unmanned launch vehicles in the years just ahead in wake of the Jan. 28 Challenger disaster, he said.
Wants to Review Plan
Fletcher told the panel that he does not necessarily disagree with the projection for nine flights in the first year after the shuttle is restored to service but said he wants to review the plan after he returns to NASA for a second tour as its administrator.
He was nominated for the administrator’s post after James M. Beggs, under federal indictment on charges of conspiring to overcharge the Army on a weapons contract while an industry executive, resigned.
Before the session Wednesday, Fletcher assured senators that he would sever his financial ties with aerospace companies, including membership on the board of General Space Corp., which has lobbied to raise private funds for a new space shuttle that it would lease to the government.
Commerce Committee members Wednesday generally applauded his nomination, which sources said could come to a vote in the Senate next week. However, Fletcher was closely questioned about a published report that NASA and its contractors had wasted at least $3.5 billion over a 15-year period, and that Fletcher had grossly underestimated the cost of operating the space shuttle and putting payloads into orbit with it.
The report, published Wednesday by the New York Times, said that “Dr. Fletcher was the agency’s administrator from 1971 to 1977, the period when many of its major cost and management procedures and abuses originated. . . . And it was essentially Dr. Fletcher who sold Congress on the shuttle by saying it would provide inexpensive and routine access to space through frequent commercial missions.”
According to the report, Fletcher, while NASA administrator, estimated that shuttle launches would cost about $10.45 million and that payloads could be put into earth orbit for about $100 per pound. Actual launch costs were put at $279 million, including construction and operations, and the cost per pound in orbit at $5,264.
Fletcher said the numbers were only estimates and never represented as “absolute figures.”
Calculated on the basis of 1971 dollars, taking into account inflation, he said today’s shuttle launch costs “would be about $40 million per flight.” He said he could not recall ever estimating that shuttle payloads could be launched for as little as $100 per pound.
Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) told Fletcher that he was troubled “by some things that happened in your tenure” and called for fuller responses before the committee votes on the nomination.