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What’s Going On?

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Monday was the 25th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s inaugural rocket flight, a 15-minute ride that heralded a quarter century of American triumphs in space. There were space spectaculars throughout the 1960s--culminating in the lunar landing--and into the 1970s. There were unmanned explorations of the planets. New technologies made satellite communications and weather pictures routine. When the space shuttle began flying in 1981, it launched its own series of breathtaking successes.

But the anniversary of Shepard’s first flight was overshadowed by the recent accidents that have created the space program’s most serious crisis since the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957. The failure over the weekend of a Delta rocket--the most reliable in the American fleet--comes on the heels of the Challenger disaster and the failures of two Air Force Titan rockets. It recalls the early days of the space program, when rockets seemed to explode on launch more often than they got their cargoes into space. And it has left the space program shaken.

There are two possible explanations for the string of failures of recent months. Either they are the result of bad luck, or they are evidence of a more fundamental problem in American space plans. While sabotage has not been ruled out, it is hard to imagine a saboteur knowledgeable, skillful and mobile enough to have destroyed several rockets over several months in different locations.

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It is too early in the investigations to identify the causes of the failures and to determine whether they were coincidental or not. Finding out should be the No. 1 priority for the space establishment and for the congressional committees that oversee it. The multibillion-dollar space program remains one of this country’s most important activities, both for its practical civilian and military uses and for its commitment to knowledge and exploration. Question marks now hang over the three major systems for lofting payloads into orbit, and while they are there, a question mark hangs over the future of the space program as a whole.

The Challenger accident caused the nation to focus new attention on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the results so far are alarming. The agency, which has basked in years of good press, was suffused in a mood of complacency that worked against finding problems and solving them. The ability of NASA management has been called into question both by the circumstances surrounding the shuttle accident and by revelations of billions of dollars wasted while the shuttle was being developed. Did these poor practices contribute to the other rocket failures, and, if so, how can they be routed out?

Complacency is the biggest enemy of high technology, whether in rocket systems or in nuclear power plants. The human element may be the weakest link in an otherwise impeccable technological chain, or the technology itself may be flawed.

The space program cries out for answers. Twenty-five years of effort hang in the balance. It’s still worth doing, but it must be done better.

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