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NASA, Air Force Mangle Missions

June 15, 1986|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a national correspondent for the Atlantic

WASHINGTON — The Rogers Commission has now issued its report on the Challenger tragedy: a curious document that accuses NASA of mismanagement, design defects, bureaucratic indifference and misleading the public; then makes no suggestion that any of the officials responsible be disciplined in any way, not even fired. For punishment, the sole recommendation is that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration produce a report evaluating itself. Asking NASA managers to write their own report cards is like asking Michael K. Deaver to investigate influence peddling.

More significant than what the commission's report says is what it does not say. While there are references to the role of institutional self-interest on the part of shuttle planners, they are not explained. Nor is the key question--whether the shuttle as a concept makes sense--given more than passing mention. So let's consider an important factor you won't read about in the Rogers Commission report: how the institutional interaction between NASA and the Air Force was allowed to run amok, making the shuttle too complex to be dependable.

First, a little history is required. Whatever one thinks of the manned versus unmanned space debate, when the shuttle was being planned it was men on the ground, not in orbit, who mattered. Specifically, men at headquarters.

At the shuttle's genesis in 1970, NASA was coming off the Apollo moon program. It had established bureaucratic empires that could be justified and continued only if the next big mission revolved around astronauts, too. The important point is that manned launches require far more personnel on the ground than unmanned rockets. The number of jobs for astronauts themselves are by comparison insignificant.

When the shuttle was proposed, public debate quickly focused on the spacecraft and its pilots--the glamour aspects. Preserving staff jobs--of greater importance to NASA--would be a foregone conclusion if a glamorous goal were approved.

The Air Force was furious at the course of post-Apollo space policy. Since the service's formation in 1947, it had been angling for a role in the heavens, which Air Force generals considered a natural extension of their role in the air. During the 1950s, the Air Force flew its X-15 rocket plane into the nether-zone between atmosphere and orbit. On the drawing boards was a winged, fighter-sized spacecraft called the X-20 Dyna Soar. Dyna Soar had a defect the Air Force could not solve, however, one so menacing all discussion of the subject was classified. This defect concerned the X-20's mission. No one could think of what it would do.

Initially the Air Force thought of using the X-20 as a space bomber. Launched from the United States, the spacecraft would reenter over the Soviet Union, release a nuclear warhead, then soar away for a landing on friendly soil. When it became apparent that an unmanned ICBM could deliver a warhead to the Soviet Union at perhaps 1% the cost, this rationale became less than fully persuasive. So planners shifted their sights to reconnaissance. Dyna Soar would cruise high above the Soviet Union taking pictures. Couldn't a satellite do the same at a fraction of the cost and risk? Shh, that's classified.

Plans for the X-20 were rendered moot in 1958 when NASA was formed and most authority over space was shifted to it. The Air Force fumed. A civilian agency had wrested control over what might have been the most glorious and expensive military mission ever.

As the '60s progressed, the Air Force schemed to get back into the game. It came up with a program called Manned Orbiting Laboratory. MOL was to be a little space station tended by a blue-clad Air Force astronaut corps. Like X-20, MOL was short on purpose: A similar Skylab station, launched by NASA in 1973, was a technical success but quickly ran out of things to do.

Construction of MOL's launch complex began at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Then fate dealt another blow. MOL was canceled by Richard M. Nixon, who considered space a Democratic boondoggle and cut the funding, diverting what remained to the shuttle. To soothe hurt feelings, NASA was instructed to entertain Air Force suggestions about shuttle design. The Air Force promptly requested its traditional ideal in flying machines--the greatest possible size, power and expense. A 65,000-pound shuttle payload bay, it said, was necessary for polar orbit launches of the largest category of spy satellites.

At one point NASA had contemplated reasonably small shuttles. With lower stressed engines and components, smaller shuttles might have been safer. Accommodation of the 65,000 pound requirement, leading to a huge vehicle, meant the entire shuttle engineering program had to tempt the outer limits of technology just to please a single "customer." On most flights the shuttle's maximum payload would be wasted. In fact, no shuttle flight has yet used it. But the risk would be on every flight.

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