Columbia Fallout May Hit Some NASA Centers

Times Staff Writer

Think NASA, and two astronaut hubs named for former presidents come to mind: John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Texas. Most people wouldn’t think of the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Ohio.

Yet NASA Glenn, named for the first American to orbit the Earth, employs 1,924 civil servants at a laboratory complex next to the Cleveland airport. That’s 54 more people than the Kennedy center, where the space shuttles launch and usually land. And its annual operating expense of $350 million approaches Kennedy’s $438 million.

NASA has 10 centers spread around the nation -- a network frozen in place since the end of the Apollo program that put men on the moon, even though the space agency’s budget has declined sharply in that time. But following the Feb. 1 Columbia space shuttle disaster, some lawmakers say it is time for a hard look at whether some of the centers have outlived their usefulness and survived mainly for political reasons.

Closing a center, the lawmakers say, could eliminate potential overlap and free up money for the agency’s core missions of aeronautical research and space exploration. Critics note that the Defense Department shed many bases after the Cold War in the quest for efficiency, and plans to cut more in 2005. NASA has not followed suit.

“I’d put all of it on the table -- the question of where the centers are and how to make the dollars stretch,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a senior Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees NASA. “The credibility of the program’s on the line. There’s virtually nothing in government that you can say, ‘Let’s run it for 40 years unchanged.’ ”


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, suggested creating a base-closing commission for NASA akin to those that helped shut down military installations. The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, proposed the same idea in 1996. It went nowhere.

McCain charges that much of the spending Congress funnels each year to individual NASA centers amounts to “disgraceful” waste, unrelated to national priorities.

But, as is usually the case in Congress, a threat to any of the centers is likely to arouse fierce objections from lawmakers whose home states would lose jobs.

Proponents of the centers say each plays an important role. In Cleveland, the Glenn facility specializes in space vehicle propulsion, power systems that can harness solar rays and low-gravity research. It also studies jet engine noise and other aeronautical issues.

“We’re kind of unique -- a hybrid center,” said Donald J. Campbell, director at Glenn since 1994. He also said the center has adapted its work to meet NASA’s needs.

Without doubt, the centers are nurtured by the senators and House members who represent them. The $15.4-billion annual NASA budget Congress passed in February was studded with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding the agency did not formally seek.

Much of that largess went to particular NASA centers or the universities, institutes and businesses linked to them.

One of the largest appropriations was $95 million for an unmanned probe to Pluto on the solar system’s outer edge -- a project championed by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA.

While there are many scientific reasons to explore a planet never seen up close, a leading beneficiary of the Pluto funding will be the Goddard Space Flight Center in Mikulski’s home state. NASA, bowing to congressional will, now recommends funding the Pluto project in the coming fiscal year.

Also tucked into the recent spending law were millions of unrequested dollars for visitor centers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and more than 120 other projects.

Congress has been spreading money across the country in this way since NASA was born in 1958.

NASA inherited several centers, including the one in Ohio, from an earlier aviation agency. Others were built or acquired during the race to the moon. In the 1960s and ‘70s, this network helped NASA build a sterling reputation as a risk-taking, high-performing federal agency.

While the agency has been rattled by two shuttle disasters in 17 years, backers say the network remains a cohesive system that effectively coordinates 19,000 civil servants and an even larger army of NASA contractors.

The two centers that manage human spaceflight -- Kennedy and Johnson -- rely on the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama for expertise on the shuttle’s engines and on Stennis for rocket propulsion testing.

Two other centers focus on astronomy and unmanned space exploration: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena (managed for NASA by Caltech) and Goddard.

The remaining four centers conduct basic and applied research, functioning like in-house universities for aeronautics and space: Ames Research Center at Northern California’s Moffett Field, Dryden Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert, Langley and Glenn.

In Cleveland, fears have emerged periodically that NASA would abandon a laboratory complex seen as a cornerstone of the local economy. The latest scare came in 2001. A local business leader and former congressman, Dennis Eckart, heard from government tipsters that NASA Glenn was “on the bubble.”

The Bush administration that year proposed cutting about $50 million from the center. Eckart, president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Assn., knew from his days in Congress that the Glenn facility was viewed as “the weak sister among the centers.”

He hired a lobbyist and called the Ohio congressional delegation.

“Frankly, we started making noise,” said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who secured a seat on the Appropriations Committee to help fight back. He said the efforts were aided by the decision to rename the center in 1999 for Glenn, who retired in 1998 after serving as one of Ohio’s U.S. senators for four terms.

Soon, the proposed cuts vanished, and nearly $20 million in additional money for Glenn appeared.

Advocates have drawn up a plan for the Glenn center to deepen its ties to local academic and business communities -- and thus gain more political clout. They estimate the center could help generate as many as 12,000 new jobs in northeastern Ohio in the next decade, as well as billions of dollars in research and development investment.

On their Web sites, other NASA centers tout their own economic importance. Marshall calls itself “a vital contributor to Alabama’s economy.”

Analysts say such claims miss the point -- that NASA is not a jobs program.

“The fundamental question is, who is looking at NASA as something greater than the sum of its parts?” said John Pike, a space analyst at the Virginia-based research group “Almost all of what passes for a policy debate in NASA has to do with bringing home the bacon -- ‘My district, my state, my center or my contractor is going to get money.’ ”

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said that all of the centers perform valuable work, and that none is a relic of a bygone era.

“It is maybe some of the same brick-and-mortar at the same locations, but it’s been an evolving set of missions” the centers have taken on, O’Keefe said.

Two years ago, the incoming Bush administration seemed to encourage a possible shake-up. In April 2001, then-NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin declared that President Bush wanted a thorough look at whether the agency’s workforce and installations matched up with its agenda.

“We face some difficult decisions and will take a close look at program priorities and the supporting capabilities at our NASA field installations,” Goldin said.

He said the agency would study certain facilities to determine whether “the continuing cost of maintaining an aging infrastructure should yield to the development of newer plants more closely tied to advancing technology.”

Goldin, a proponent of making NASA projects “faster, better, cheaper,” launched what became known as a “strategic resources review.” But he retired in November 2001, before it was done.

O’Keefe, his successor, was warned at his Senate confirmation hearing in December 2001 not to meddle with the centers. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a guardian of the Stennis center, told O’Keefe that many lawmakers would object if he took steps toward shutting one down.

Last year, O’Keefe quietly buried the resources review. On Friday, he said the review had yielded few noteworthy findings.



On the chopping block?

As part of the spotlight on NASA following the Columbia space shuttle disaster, some members of Congress are questioning whether the space agency should maintain all of its 10 field centers. Here are the centers, their locations, current number of employees (excluding contractors) and proposed budgets for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Ames Research Center -- Moffett Field, Calif.; 1,506 employees; $407 million

Dryden Flight Research Center -- Edwards Air Force Base; 595 employees; $113 million

Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field -- Cleveland; 1,924 employees; $350 million

Goddard Space Flight Center -- Greenbelt, Md.; 3,323 employees; $538 million

*Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- Pasadena

Johnson Space Center -- Houston; 2,975 employees; $545 million

Kennedy Space Center -- Cape Canaveral, Fla.; 1,870 employees; $438 million

Langley Research Center -- Hampton, Va.; 2,365 employees; $411 million

Marshall Space Flight Center -- Huntsville, Ala.; 2,761 employees; $479 million

Stennis Space Center -- Hancock County, Miss.; 301 employees; $74 million

*JPL is run by Caltech under contract with NASA. No comparable figures for employees or budget were available.

Source: NASA

Los Angeles Times