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Spacey Days

April 28, 1986

Nothing succeeds like success, it has been said, which is an accurate description of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before the Challenger accident three months ago. While it was running up an unparalleled string of breathtaking space spectaculars, few noticed that it was also running up a bill that was padded with waste, fraud and abuse.

As detailed in two articles last week in the New York Times, federal auditors throughout the 1970s and '80s told the agency repeatedly that millions of dollars were being wasted, that management controls were inadequate and that NASA contractors made defense contractors look like pikers. Millions of dollars of equipment disappeared. Work was done by contractors before a price was agreed on, and the government then paid what the contractors asked for. Spare parts were bought from subcontractors who bought them from other vendors and then jacked up the price. The Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International in Canoga Park, which makes the shuttle engines, was paid $120 each for bolt assemblies worth $3.28, $315 each for metal loops that cost 3 cents, $80 for $1 washers, $1,621 for a $78 bolt, and on and on.

The auditors documented waste of at least $3.5 billion, which the attorney for the space agency's inspector general calls "the tip of the iceberg," adding, "There is probably much more out there."

But the agency sloughed it all off. After all, every time it lit up one of the shuttles, the thing took off, didn't it? So what's a little vigorish here and there to assure good contractor relations?

One effect of the waste of money was that the space agency tried to economize by cutting back its testing program. It saved $68 million, the auditors found, by not testing the shuttle's solid-fuel booster rockets, the failure of which caused the Challenger disaster.

The absence of financial controls at NASA greatly increased the cost of the shuttle program. Congress originally approved it on the strength of the argument that a reusable vehicle would be cheap and that these remarkable spaceplanes would pay for themselves and make money for the government to boot. But the shuttle wound up costing more and flying less than the rosy predictions made to Congress. Everyone, including NASA, has known for years that the shuttle will never make a profit.

The man who ran NASA from 1971 to 1977, while the shuttle was being developed and the taxpayers were being robbed, was James C. Fletcher. He is the James C. Fletcher who is now being brought back with great fanfare to pick up the space agency's tattered reins.

There must be somebody better for the rudderless agency to turn to. Fletcher's nomination is now before the Senate. His previous stewardship should fill all of the senators with misgivings about his ability to straighten things out.

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