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Why Challenger Was Doomed : The story of the ill-fated space shuttle goes far beyond O-rings, say the officials who were involved. Politics, economics, egos and ambition were also to blame.

January 18, 1987|JOSEPH J. TRENTO and SUSAN B. TRENTO | Joseph J. Trento, an investigative reporter with Cable News Network, and Susan B. Trento, a former congressional aide, are the authors of "Prescription for Disaster."

On April 7, 1983, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was ushered into the Oval Office. If the U.S. space program had one shortcoming, James Beggs told Ronald Reagan, it was the lack of continuous experience of man in space. The Soviets had stuck with their aging technology but flew astronauts to orbital workshops for missions lasting months, while U.S. astronauts remained grounded waiting for the fledgling space shuttle. The United States, he argued, needed a permanent, orbiting space station.

Beggs wasn't asking for a courageous commitment; after all, the bulk of

the money would not be needed until after Reagan left office. "He didn't like to talk about money at all," Beggs says. "When you got to the point of talking about how much it would cost, he would either turn to (domestic adviser Edwin) Meese or in most cases to (Cabinet Secretary Craig) Fuller and say, 'Well, let's work this out with David (Stockman).' And he'd stop."

Reagan had trouble with the concepts of the space program, Beggs says. "He was almost technically ignorant. Not quite, but almost. He grasps a few of the broader concepts, but when you start talking in any kind of detail about the broader aspects of the program, his eyes glaze over."

James Beggs is a very forceful man: tall, immaculate, with a booming voice and an imposing, military bearing. Like NASA administrators before him, he wanted his name attached to a big project. He understood all too well that the space shuttle represented the only power base NASA still had in an Administration that disliked manned spaceflight and seemed determined to turn the space program over to the military. George C. Keyworth, the President's science adviser and a former weapons designer at Los Alamos, was openly trying to force Beggs to relinquish control of the shuttle to the Air Force, which Keyworth and others thought was better suited for operational responsibilities. Keyworth--a somewhat nervous man who loves slogans and considered himself an important part of Reagan's White House team--attacked the space station plan as a "motel in the sky for astronauts."

Beggs was convinced that a successful shuttle would build congressional and public support for the space station. He pressured his managers to make the shuttle a viable commercial rocket system as quickly as possible by vastly expanding its schedule. And he arranged to make a personal pitch to the President--with neither the knowledge nor the approval of Meese or Keyworth.

By the end of the meeting, the President was favorably disposed. And by the end of the year, Beggs was informed that $150 million was included in the fiscal 1985 budget for a space station. In his unpublished memoirs, Beggs' deputy, Hans Mark, wrote that Beggs "would be remembered . . . as one of the NASA administrators who had succeeded in persuading a President to do something brand new." But among Administration conservatives, Beggs would be remembered as the man who had humiliated them on the space station. That lingering bitterness would have dramatic consequences for both the shuttle program and for Beggs.

"Of all the organizations that I have dealt with . . . I have only seen one that lied. It was NASA," science adviser Keyworth says today. "The reason they lie, of course, is because they are wrapped up in a higher calling. In their eyes these are white lies. They tell lies in order to do what has to be done. Because in the end the result will be for the betterment of the public. So they are not lying from evil. But, nevertheless, they are lying."

AN OLD-LINE REPUBLICAN, BEGGS considered people like Keyworth and other hard-line Administration conservatives "right-wing nuts" who had no influence with the President. It was a crucial mistake.

In the spring of 1983, for instance, interest was building for the first flight of an American woman in space, Dr. Sally Ride, whose parents lived in the Santa Monica Assembly district of liberal Democrat Tom Hayden. Hayden, according to Beggs, called NASA's Los Angeles office and asked for an invitation to the launch for himself and his wife, actress Jane Fonda. Following its longtime practice for local public officials, NASA sent them one.

"So Fonda and Hayden show up for the Sally Ride launch down at Kennedy (Space Center in Florida)," Beggs says. "And of course, as you would expect, the press swarmed around Fonda like bees do around honey." The Washington Post gave favorable coverage to Fonda's visit, and Beggs heard about it quickly.

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