WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator James Fletcher told President Reagan today that it will take longer than expected to redesign booster rockets and that the next space shuttle flight probably will be delayed until the first quarter of 1988.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration target for the first flight after the Challenger disaster had been July, 1987, but Fletcher's report on the troubled space program said the final review for the redesigned boosters is anticipated in December, 1987.
Fletcher met with Reagan for 18 minutes at the White House to describe how the space agency is implementing recommendations of the Rogers Commission, which investigated last January's Challenger explosion.
Fletcher submitted a 50-page report to the President describing how NASA has responded to each of the commission's nine recommendations.
The commission's key recommendation was that the booster rockets must be redesigned. A faulty joint between two solid fuel segments in Challenger's right booster triggered the Jan. 28 explosion that destroyed the ship and killed its seven crew members.
Fletcher's report to Reagan said that several design alternatives are being studied and that, in addition, a new design is in the works that does not use existing hardware.
"At this time it appears that the first launch will not occur prior to the first quarter of 1988," the report said.
NASA sources said tentative plans indicate that the first set of redesigned booster rockets will be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center launch site in October, 1987. Internal planning documents show the first post-Challenger launch in February, 1988.
The sources said, however, that engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., have asked for two months of "contingency time" to provide a schedule cushion to handle any unexpected problems that might develop.
That would push the first shuttle launch into April, 1988, but officials said that until a new booster design is finished, it is impossible to set a firm launch date.
Still unresolved is whether Reagan will approve a NASA plan to construct a new shuttle to replace Challenger. Reagan's decision on that issue has been delayed more than two months by questions of how to meet the $2-billion-plus cost of the new ship.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the decision is at least two weeks away, although several Republican leaders have said they are confident that Reagan will support the replacement effort.
Speakes said that after today's briefing, White House officials would review the direction NASA has taken since the disaster, which set the program back an estimated two years.
Fletcher already had announced two major steps to strengthen the program. He said June 30 that he was moving direction of the space station project from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to NASA headquarters in Washington, and July 8 he established a new office of safety, reliability and quality assurance to provide independent oversight of key projects.