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Senator Critical of Vandenberg as Shuttle Site

Times Staff Writer

The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee concerned with defense construction called Tuesday for the new $3-billion space shuttle launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force base to be put in mothballs, saying it would save taxpayers $400 million a year.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and in a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) said that the space shuttle is no longer necessary to get top-priority national security payloads into orbit.

He called on the Pentagon to use expendable launch vehicles now under development and asked the General Accounting Office to determine if there are any military missions that can be carried out only by a manned spacecraft.

Effect on Safety Cited

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Sasser’s criticism came after a report by the Appropriations military construction subcommittee’s Democratic staff asserted that there are significant technical problems, potentially affecting launch safety, at the Vandenberg shuttle complex and that weather conditions at the site could impede shuttle operations.

If the Vandenberg shuttle facility is placed in mothballs, Sasser said, it might then be unnecessary for the United States to build a new shuttle orbiter to replace the Challenger, which was lost in a Jan. 28 accident.

“I am concerned that military space shuttle flights from Vandenberg may no longer be necessary,” Sasser said in his letter to Weinberger. “The purpose of such a capability was to assure the launch of heavy payloads into polar orbit. Questions are now being raised regarding the capability of the Vandenberg facilities to support such launches safely.

“But, beyond that, as the Department of Defense achieves the ability to launch the complementary expendable launch vehicles from Vandenberg, shuttle launches from the West Coast no longer appear necessary.”

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In his Senate speech, Sasser said: “The significant technical problems at Vandenberg lead me to believe a military space shuttle program is not necessary. There are less costly alternatives available that entail less risk and achieve the same end. In my view, we should no longer plan to use manned spaceflight to deliver military payloads into space unless there is no other alternative.”

The chief conclusion of the staff report was that technical and structural problems at Vandenberg, known since last fall and in the process of being resolved, could seriously damage or destroy the shuttle on launch. “The Air Force has determined,” the report said, “that the shuttle main engine exhaust ducts could fill with hydrogen gas and result in a detonation during launch and possible damage to the shuttle itself during liftoff.”

The staff report said that Air Force officials indicated a problem could be created when hydrogen “is entrapped in the ducts, if shuttle main engines are shut down on the pad to abort a liftoff or at the end of a flight readiness test firing.”

The problem was identified last fall after the same problem, but not as severe, was detected at the Kennedy Space Center launch complex in Florida. The Air Force is looking at more than two dozen possible ways to resolve the problem, with detailed engineering studies under way. The subcommittee staff contended that in the worst case the modification could cost several million dollars, require moving the shuttle assembly building and could not be completed until January, 1989. Sasser also cited high winds, humidity and fog as potential problems for launching at Vandenberg.

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Deliberations Go On

The subcommittee report and the senator’s recommendations based on it came as the Reagan Administration continued its deliberations over whether to build an orbiter to replace Challenger and as both House and Senate committees continued hearings in the wake of the presidential commission’s final report on the shuttle disaster.

The House Science and Technology Committee Tuesday heard officials of Morton Thiokol Inc., the company that builds the shuttle system’s solid rocket boosters, publicly disagree over whether there had been pressure from NASA to go ahead with the ill-fated Challenger on Jan. 28. In the Senate space subcommittee, meanwhile, NASA officials heard renewed demands that they pinpoint the blame for the tragedy and that, in the words of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), “every single person be identified and disciplined.”

Pentagon Reaction

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Sasser’s suggestion that the Vandenberg shuttle complex be mothballed brought immediate reaction from the Pentagon and from Capitol Hill.

“Vandenberg has for decades been an important launch location, and has a unique ability to give us safety margins when we’re launching in the polar orbits,” Pentagon spokesman Robert Sims said. “The existing facilities there have made it an ideal choice for supporting the shuttle and future manned-launch requirements.”

An aide to Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said that Cranston took serious exception to the staff report and to Sasser’s recommendations. He said Cranston considers the Vandenberg launch complex vital because of its contribution to defense readiness and the crucial role it plays in verification of U.S.-Soviet arms agreements.

The United States’ most important spy satellites are launched from Vandenberg because the site’s locations allow them to be put into polar orbits whose tracks permit them to cover the entirety of the Soviet Union.

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After the accident, consideration was given to slowing work at Vandenberg but no decision was made.

NASA officials have said that national security payloads will have top priority once the three-shuttle fleet is restored to flight status, no earlier than July, 1987. But because of landing difficulties experienced on earlier flights and the uncertainty of the Florida weather, veteran astronauts have recommended that future landings be restricted to Edwards Air Force base in the California desert.

The first shuttle launch from Vandenberg had been scheduled for this July, but the report by the Appropriations subcommittee’s minority staff contended that technical problems at the launch complex would have prevented the flight from going on schedule, even if the Challenger tragedy had not occurred. In testimony before the House Science and Technology Committee Tuesday, the NASA engineer cited by Morton Thiokol engineers as a source of pressure for the Jan. 28 launch even though Thiokol first recommended against it, denied that he had pressured the contractor.

Lawrence B. Mulloy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said in retrospect, however, that there was not sufficient test experience to justify launching Challenger in weather far colder than anything the shuttle had experienced before.

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Referring to persistent problems with the rubber seals between the booster rocket’s joints, Mulloy said: “I do believe that we at NASA got into a group think situation with regard to the seriousness of this problem . . . we convinced ourselves it was an acceptable risk . . . on Jan. 27, that same thought process was in place.”

This was one of the chief conclusions in the presidential commission’s final report.

“When we started down that road, we started down the road to having an accident,” Mulloy said. “I believe that.”

Morton Thiokol engineers Alan McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, who testified before the same committee earlier in the day, said that, in the discussions before the Challenger launch, the contractor had been put into the position of having to prove to NASA that the launch was not unsafe--a reversal of traditional roles.

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