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Science / Medicine : Countdown for NASA : Restructuring Movement Launched as Time Runs Out for Ailing Space Agency

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

The agency that electrified the world when it put men on the moon is suffering from the symptoms of old age, and a movement has begun to remake NASA into the tightly focused agency with the singleness of purpose that allowed it to carry out the great achievements of its past.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has grown unwieldy and distracted from its primary mission of research and development, and the best way to restore its vigor is to remove some of its diversions, according to a wide range of experts. The call for restructuring is coming even from some of NASA’s longtime supporters, including U.S. Rep. George Brown (R-Colton), a ranking member of the House science and technology subcommittee.

Many believe that the time has come to break off some programs now run by the space agency--possibly including the space shuttle, the planned space station and an ambitious effort to study global change from space.

In the halls of Congress, and some say in the White House as well, there is much talk of restructuring an agency that has led the world in space exploration for more than three decades.

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“It’s not as if NASA is the only government agency that has made some blunders,” said Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate science and space subcommittee. “It’s just that theirs are so highly visible and we have so much pride in them and expect so much that we’re bitterly disappointed when things go wrong.

“Many are wondering now if the recent troubles don’t have some common denominators,” he added.

And many believe that the common denominator is the space agency itself.

NASA’s problems are not likely to be resolved, according to John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, until there are fundamental changes in “the structure of the institution.”

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NASA finds itself struggling to comprehend a blunder that left its highly touted Hubble Space Telescope at least temporarily blinded and many of its programs in disarray. And only this past weekend the agency experienced a sense of deja vu when the Magellan spacecraft malfunctioned while circling Venus.

NASA is also saddled with plans for an expensive and, according to many, impractical space station that even many of its friends abhor.

The agency’s dream of building a permanent, manned space station at a cost of more than $37 billion could become a nightmare. Many experts, both in and out of NASA, now say the station is the wrong design and totally unrealistic in view of the predicament the agency finds itself in today.

Some, including former astronaut Donald (Deke) Slayton, believe that a more gradual development of the space station would have made more sense.

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“I would prefer a modular approach,” Slayton said. He said that would allow the station to grow and change as the needs dictated. That approach will require fewer flights by the space shuttle, Slayton said, and that would be a major advantage over the current design.

It will take at least 28 missions by the space shuttle--nearly as many as have been flown throughout the troubled history of the shuttle--to get the station operational, and there are persistent reports that the station will be so complex it will be hard to keep it from falling apart even before it is completed.

The agency is unwilling to redesign the station, partly because of the outrage that move would undoubtedly cause among NASA’s international partners. Europe is furnishing one module for the station, and Japan another.

The space agency now finds itself in a “Catch-22" predicament: To go forward may plunge it into a technological abyss; to go back to the drawing board would forfeit billions of dollars already spent on the program and further undermine confidence in NASA.

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And the problems do not end there. Space enthusiasts have been saying for years that what the program really needed was someone in the White House who would outline specific goals that would give the agency direction.

President Bush did just that with a proposal to send astronauts to Mars early in the next century.

The agency now has its goal--Mars--and a man in the White House who has endorsed the most ambitious space exploration program since President John F. Kennedy inspired a nation with a call to put men on the moon and bring them home safely within a decade.

But Bush’s timing could not have been worse in the sense that NASA has lost so much confidence among its friends in Congress that funds for even the preliminary stage of the Mars initiative were cut from its budget.

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“That will have to wait,” said Brown, one of the agency’s most knowledgeable supporters in Congress.

Brown is one of many who expects to see a strong effort to restructure the agency in the coming months, and that could create even more turmoil in the short term.

What is likely to emerge from it all is a vastly different space agency, perhaps stripped of some showcase programs that will be reassigned to new institutions with narrow objectives.

Sources here said Bush is leaning in that direction himself, and backed away from launching a major external investigation into the space agency only because of fierce opposition from NASA’s leadership.

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How did it all come to this? How did an organization agency with such pride and a long list of stellar achievements end up as the butt of jokes and the target of many who would like to see it dismantled?

James Beggs, who headed NASA during the years when many of the agency’s most troubled programs were in their planning stages, believes that the space agency is just getting old. “Over the years, NASA has aged, and as it aged it lost a little of its edge,” Beggs said in an interview.

The aging process, and “the beating they have taken over the last five or six years” during various inquiries into NASA’s problems, have left the men and women of NASA a little too timid, Beggs said.

“They are not as willing to step out and take risks,” Beggs said. “Yet that is what they are paid to do.”

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Beggs, now 64, believes that the answer to NASA’s problems may lie partly in creating inducements for many of its key employees to retire.

“A third of the NASA people are eligible to retire right now,” he said. “I’d offer them some incentives for retirement and bring in a lot of new blood.

“I came to NASA in 1967 when I was just 40 and I was full of myself and ready to charge. I did a lot of good things. In Apollo days we had 30- and 40-year-olds running the programs. Right now that would be unheard of.”

Beggs concedes that he was part of the problem at NASA. Just before the Challenger accident, he stepped down because of a criminal indictment stemming from his days as an executive with General Dynamics. He was later acquitted, and won an apology from federal prosecutors, but he admits today that his mind was on other matters as the agency was going through a tumultuous period.

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NASA was over-stressed, overworked and accident-prone when he took over in 1981, and he moved to correct that, Beggs said.

“But in late 1985, we started making mistakes again. I was fighting the court case, and I probably should have gotten out then, in retrospect. The agency was leaderless from the time I was indicted until (James) Fletcher got in.”

Fletcher, who was called back from an academic post and reluctantly assumed the leadership of NASA for a second time in 1986, took over an agency that had been shattered by the Challenger accident. Many believe that he never really fulfilled the opportunity that was his. The agency seemed to drift with Fletcher at the helm, heading toward the debacle of launching a space telescope with a flawed primary mirror.

Ironically, today NASA finds itself with the strongest leadership it has had in years. Former astronaut and Navy Adm. Richard Truly, the current NASA administrator, is highly respected as a man of great personal integrity and dedication to his task. His deputy administrator is J. R. Thompson, a veteran of many past skirmishes involving the space agency and regarded as one of its most capable leaders.

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Insiders believe that it was largely Bush’s confidence in Truly and Thompson that caused the President to stop short of ordering a sweeping outside investigation into NASA on the heels of the Hubble trouble. Instead, an 11-member commission has been appointed to advise NASA management on the direction the space program should take in the years ahead.

Both Truly and Thompson defend the agency and bristle at charges that it has grown fat, lazy and incompetent.

“I believe the agency is stronger today than it has ever been,” Thompson said in an interview. “People like to think that we went to the moon and we didn’t have any trouble at all, so why can’t we do that again? But with Apollo 6 we had a major failure and a fire in the engine compartment. We had to shut down two engines. We completed the mission by the skin of our teeth.

“We had more anomalies on (Apollo’s) Saturn 5 launches than we have had on the shuttle program collectively. So we’re much smarter today.”

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Thompson is particularly irked over charges that NASA cannot even run the shuttle properly. The shuttle fleet is grounded because of leaks of its highly explosive liquid fuel, but Thompson said the agency is doing exactly what it said it would do after the Challenger accident.

“We promised that if we saw something we didn’t like, we would stop and react to it,” he said, so it was essential to ground the fleet until the problem was fully understood. And, he conceded, there will be more problems in the future.

“NASA is not in this business thinking that everything we do is going to be perfect, because we’ve got a very ambitious program laid out,” he said. “We’re pushing the state of the art in a lot of areas, and we’re doing what no other country in the world is doing.”

But Thompson also put his finger on the difference between the NASA of today and the NASA of Apollo, and it is that difference that is forcing a lot of people to take another look at the agency.

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“Back in Apollo, we had one program,” to put men on the moon, Thompson said.

That singleness of purpose gave the agency a sharpness that many now believe has been diluted by the wide diversity within the space program.

“When the nation decided to do Apollo, it created a new institution to carry it out,” Logsdon said. “That institution was sized and styled to the problem, to the goal. I would say we ought to be thinking about new institutional forms appropriate to missions at their particular stage of development.”

Logsdon would strip some programs from NASA, such as the Mission to Planet Earth that will use spacecraft to study changes in the global environment, and assign them to new institutions that would have control over the development, implementation and operation of the program. Other candidates include the space station and possibly even the shuttle.

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Many other experts agree.

“You have within the organization several distinct missions,” California’s Brown said. “There could be ways found to separate these out.”

Such a move, he said, would strengthen the management of programs that need help and would relieve NASA management of the diversions from its fundamental charter of research and development. What you would gain, he added, is “a sharper focus” on complex problems.

Such retooling, proponents say, would return NASA to the Apollo-like days when it was in fighting trim. The stage for disaster was set, they argue, as soon as astronauts stopped going to the moon.

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“After Apollo, a lot of the cost for quality control was cut,” Gore said. “The excitement and enthusiasm that energized the whole effort began to subside from the extraordinary levels that existed during Apollo.”

The nation was also caught in the grip of the Vietnam War, and the space program was left with weak leadership, a reduced budget and a White House that was more concerned with other problems.

NASA responded, Gore and others believe, by promising more spectacular space extravaganzas than it was able to deliver. Many cite the Hubble Space Telescope as the inevitable product of that tumultuous period.

“The Hubble management structure was hopeless,” Gore said. “It had 13 project managers in 12 years, and responsibility was divided among many different geographic locations.”

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Logsdon said the “split management” contributed to “adversarial relationships between the contractors and NASA. Program managers were unwilling to admit they had problems and were way over budget. And contractors who had worked mainly on top-secret defense projects were not used to NASA oversight, so they told NASA to go away.

“That’s not an environment in which people reason together to make sure everything’s done as well as it might be,” Logsdon said.

What troubles experts such as Logsdon is that he sees many of the same seeds of destruction that produced Hubble at work in NASA today as it plans for the space station.

“The space station’s problems are even more complicated than the Hubble’s,” Brown said. “You can look at the space station and say, ‘How can we trust these people to build it?’ ”

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The debate over the space station is of little consolation to people such as Oliver Harwood, a retired engineer with the Rockwell Corp. who fought so fiercely to have the station redesigned that he was warned by his employer that he could be fired if he continued to speak out. Harwood argued several years ago that a modular station that could be launched into orbit with three or four shuttle flights was feasible; a giant station that would require dozens of flights was not.

Some wonder what would happen to a partially completed space station if the shuttle is grounded for a prolonged period because of another accident.

“The problem is not the station, it’s the shuttle,” Logsdon said. “The problem is the lack of a transportation system that can take big pieces up.”

Logsdon said he does not believe that the station, as it is now designed, is either too ambitious or too big, but he seriously questions whether the shuttle is adequate for the task.

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Others have problems with the design of the station itself, maintaining that it is overweight, has too little electrical power and will require too many spacewalks by astronauts just to maintain it.

The lack of confidence in NASA is likely to lead to a hard new look at the design of the station, although it is unlikely that it will be changed so much that it will antagonize the United States’ international partners. What does seem likely to change, however, is NASA.


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