Astronauts Tell of Mounting Bureaucracy

Times Staff Writer

Three generations of astronauts told a House panel Wednesday that NASA’s space pilots have been increasingly submerged beneath mounting layers of bureaucracy in which their views on safety issues are subject to more and more filtering before reaching top management.

Appearing before the House Science and Technology Committee, six current and former members of the astronaut corps endorsed almost without qualification the conclusions of the presidential commission that investigated the Jan. 28 Challenger tragedy and its call for major management reforms in the space agency.

But, at the same time, they cautioned against making astronauts the final arbiters of space shuttle safety issues and expecting them to second-guess experts on all of the craft’s complex systems.

‘Submerged in Bureaucracy’


Recommending that the astronaut corps have direct access to top-level NASA management, former astronaut Donald K. Slayton told the committee that pilots have been “submerged another layer or two further down in the bureaucracy” and “anytime you introduce layering, you create problems.”

Shuttle pilot Robert L. Gibson, who joined the space program nearly 20 years after Slayton and commanded the last mission before the Challenger accident, agreed that the trend had continued in recent times. “Every time you report through another level,” he said, “It gets filtered just a little bit more.”

In its report made public June 9, the presidential panel called for appointment of a NASA safety chief to report directly to the agency administrator, elevation of the role of the flight crew operations director and encouragement of senior astronauts to enter management posts.

Managed Apollo Office


Former Apollo astronaut James A. McDivitt, who later managed the Apollo program office, said of the astronaut corps Wednesday: “I would rather that they come directly to me. As program manager, I wouldn’t like to see the organization as it is structured today.”

The appearance of the six astronauts before the House panel apparently brought the congressional follow-up of the presidential commission’s investigation near a conclusion.

In recent days, members of the House and Senate have expressed frustration at the Reagan Administration’s delay in deciding specifically what steps it will take to restore the country’s shattered space program.

Express Caution


Despite their agreement with the presidential commission’s recommendations and their feeling of being isolated from top decision makers, the astronauts Wednesday cautioned against expecting the pilots to make judgments about the condition of shuttle systems.

Chief astronaut John W. Young questioned whether the Challenger launch decision would have been reversed even if astronauts had been involved in the critical meetings that took place in the hours before Challenger was cleared for flight. “When people present these things in a way that doesn’t seem serious to you,” he said, “everybody in the room says: ‘Let’s go fly.’

Young and McDivitt cautioned against putting too much responsibility on a flight crew commander preparing for a launch. Even though the space agency has 88 astronauts on duty, they have been under increasing pressure in preparing for missions in recent years, shuttle pilots said.

Shortage of Simulators


Astronaut Henry W. Hartsfield, a veteran of three shuttle flights, said that before the Challenger tragedy a shortage of flight simulators was creating serious problems of scheduling training before space flights.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, who flew four space missions including the linkup in space with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, called for NASA to give serious attention to adding an escape system to the shuttle.

Because the Challenger crew module fell to the sea intact, Stafford said, there is the suggestion that members of the crew might have been able to escape, if the crew compartment had not lost its pressurization. “I am firmly convinced they might have,” he said.

Although the Challenger crew compartment survived the fireball intact, most experts believe that the seven member crew was rendered unconscious within seconds. NASA has refused to discuss the questions of how the crew members died.