Soon after the space shuttle Challenger blew up, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Chief James C. Fletcher said it would be tougher to repair the space agency than to fix the shuttle. He was right.
The redesigned shuttle Discovery lifted off flawlessly Thursday, but the organization on the ground remains deeply troubled. NASA today is mired in self-doubt and self-pity, uncertain of its mission and increasingly unable to attract and keep the nation’s top scientific talent, according to both critics and supporters of the agency.
While many of NASA’s top managers have been replaced in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster in January, 1986, dangerous old attitudes remain ingrained, experts said in interviews over the last several weeks.
Disdain for Criticism
Among them are a disdain for outside criticism, a resistance to congressional oversight and a bias in favor of human spaceflight over unmanned scientific missions.
Observers inside and outside NASA say that the agency needs the shuttle program to get back on track quickly, but more important, it needs an overarching goal and new leadership to take it there.
“What’s wrong with NASA? There’s a malaise that has to get pumped out of the system,” said Jim Harford, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, an industry group. “There will be nothing better in the short run than a successful shuttle flight. But that’s not the end of the problem for them.
“What it needs is for a new President of the United States to understand that the NASA program is an important part of the scientific and technological capability of the country.”
The contrast between NASA now and during the 1960s could not be greater, according to Thomas O. Paine, who served as NASA administrator from 1968 to 1970, when the Apollo program first left man’s footprints on the moon.
“It was indeed a feeling of participating in an enormously historical time, when life had taken the first step across the void of space to bring humans to another world. People were willing to sacrifice and bleed and die to do that,” Paine said. “It inspired everybody on the Apollo program to perform far beyond their normal capabilities.”
Paine said that NASA has spent the last 15 years developing the space shuttle, designed to be a space truck with a mission no more glamorous than carting a load of toothpicks to Topeka.
Calls for Ambitious Program
The former administrator said that NASA has “confused a piece of hardware with goals” and urged space agency officials and the next Administration to commit the nation to an ambitious program of space exploration.
“The next President must set goals for NASA comparable to those that John Kennedy set in 1961,” when he vowed that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, Paine said. “It was the goal Kennedy set that made America the leading space-faring nation.”
“NASA is 30 years old this year,” noted retired Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, former head of the Apollo program and former chief of the Air Force’s space division. “And organizations that evolve over decades very often somewhere in that period need some revitalizing, and that’s definitely true of NASA.”
“The big problem in NASA and the space program is the purpose, the goal,” he said. “What are we really trying to accomplish?”
Phillips, who was called in after the Challenger exploded to study NASA’s organizational problems, agreed with Paine that the agency lacks a vision of its future. Like many other space enthusiasts, Phillips believes that the United States should set its sights on Mars, and beyond.
Urges Planetary Exploration
“I’d like to see it go in the direction that will lead to planetary exploration with humans. That’s a long-term goal and a long-term program. It involves many, many years, probably a few decades . . . . The thrust of the program should be scientific exploration and discovery and experimentation to determine the limits of human endurance . . . . And that will set a course for the agency as a whole, and in turn, for its many parts.”
The shuttle disaster did more than set back the manned spaceflight program by 32 months. It shattered NASA’s self-confidence and led many to rethink their careers there.
“You had a unique group of people doing unique things. Then that wonderful shining Disneyland collapsed all around them,” said Julian Scheer, senior vice president at LTV Corp., who served as NASA’s director of public affairs in the 1960s. “A lot of people at NASA went through the same syndrome as Vietnam veterans. They felt a lot of guilt and there was nobody around to hold their hands. It created a kind of fortress mentality in which they struggled within the compound walls to straighten things out.”
In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, the heads of NASA’s major programs and the directors of all its centers were replaced. The agency was restructured with much more authority and accountability centered in Washington.
End Crippling Rivalries
The reorganization was designed, in part, to end the crippling rivalries among the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The centers had grown increasingly autonomous and turf-conscious. The commission, headed by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, that was formed to investigate the Challenger disaster said that the shuttle accident was a direct result of the failure of officials at Marshall to act on or pass along warnings of potentially fatal flaws in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters.
“What must change is the institutional inability to accept accountability at the top levels,” said Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the space, science and applications subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and a passenger on the shuttle Columbia, the last successful shuttle mission, in January, 1986. “NASA went on for 25 years and they could do no wrong. That allowed this arrogance and hardening of the arteries that ultimately led to the lack of communication that caused the Challenger (explosion).”
As a result of the accident, the decision to launch or scrub a shuttle mission is now in the hands of one man, former astronaut Robert L. Crippen. All authority for the shuttle program has been given to another ex-astronaut, Rear Adm. Richard H. Truly.
These moves were designed to centralize authority and lessen the risk of space travel, which remains an inherently dangerous business.
Some fear that NASA remains so traumatized by the Challenger disaster that it has lost its spirit of adventure.
‘Not Risk-Free Enterprise’
“This is not a risk-free enterprise. Nothing worthwhile in human endeavor is,” said Harrison H. Schmitt, the geologist who flew on the Apollo 17 moon shot and later represented New Mexico in the U.S. Senate.
A 10-Year Lead
“The Soviet Union now has a 10-year lead on us in space. The only thing we can do is to lead the settlement of Mars, to create the first permanent human outpost on Mars,” Schmitt said.
Before such visions can be realized, however, NASA must get the shuttle established again. A successful Discovery mission will help revitalize the agency but it may also accelerate some long-brewing problems.
Many senior NASA engineers and officials, nearing the ends of their careers, agreed to stay long enough to fix the shuttle program. NASA expects many of them to leave in the next few months, taking with them years of experience and institutional memory. More than a third of NASA’s professional work force will be eligible for retirement within five years, officials said.
Noel W. Hinners, NASA’s associate deputy director, said that the agency faces a personnel crisis as a result. It will have a large bulge of new employees and a huge deficit of experienced mid-career people, he said.
Graduates Hard to Attract
In addition, NASA is having a hard time attracting top science and engineering graduates.
“Our entry salaries are not competitive,” Hinners said in an interview. “Industry is offering $6,000 to $12,000 (a year) more than we can. We’re starting to lose . . . the best.”
Thrill is Gone
Low pay was not a problem in the 1960s, Hinners said, when the nation was enchanted with space travel and committed to putting a man on the moon. For today’s talented young engineers, however, the thrill is gone.
“Without the exciting program, they kiss it off” and head for better-paying jobs in industry, he said.
Adding to the frustration is the backlog of scientific experiments waiting for room on the shuttle, virtually the only means of access to space since NASA moved away from unmanned rockets in the 1970s.
Big Projects Must Wait
Frustrated NASA scientists have been waiting years to get big projects, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, onto the shuttle cargo manifest. The telescope is now scheduled to fly in 1990, 3 1/2 years later than planned.
“The thinking was that by eliminating all other launch vehicles and putting everything on the shuttle, you’d build the volume necessary to build economy into the system. That was a lousy idea, but it seemed like a good idea at the time,” said former NASA chief Paine.
“We need to sort out those things best done robotically and those which require a human presence,” he added. “The shuttle has blocked the development of a real low-cost robotic launch system.”
Morale hit bottom after the Challenger disaster, but a successful Discovery mission will help immeasurably to lift spirits at NASA, according to John McLucas, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council and former secretary of the Air Force.
“After the accident, everybody was flat on their backs. They have gradually recovered, but I’d say the scars are permanent,” he said. “Once you’ve had an accident which allows a lot of dirt to be spilled about how you’re managed and structured, there’s no way to put it back.”
That’s why so much is riding on the Discovery, he said. “There’s no substitute for action and there’s been no action for a long time.”