WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, it will be a year since seven space voyagers, the robust image of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the illusion of routine operations in space perished in the fireball of the shuttle Challenger.
At 11:38 a.m., the same moment that the Challenger's fatally flawed booster rockets ignited in 1986, setting in motion the worst tragedy of the Space Age, NASA will lower its flags at installations from Wallops Island off the Virginia coast to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
And from Houston to Huntsville, Ala., to Washington and the Florida launch site itself, tens of thousands of NASA and aerospace industry employees will pause for 73 seconds of silence--one for every second of Challenger's nine-mile ascent toward disaster from Launch Pad 39B.
Memorial Service Scheduled
In the early afternoon, several family members and a few of NASA's top officials will meet at the chapel at Ft. Myer, Va., adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, for a private memorial service for the seven who were lost--among them Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the 37-year-old schoolteacher who was to have been the trailblazer for all the "ordinary people" who would ever fly in space.
A year after the accident suddenly left the American space program in utter shambles and NASA a confused, dispirited bureaucracy, the agency has begun making visible progress toward putting the disaster behind it. Its focus has shifted from the accident to preparation for another shuttle launch on Feb. 18, 1988, a date unanimously agreed to be heartily optimistic.
Although the space program is still far from its old self, NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher is encouraged. "NASA is stronger now than a year ago and is growing stronger every day," he declared earlier this month. "We're getting our house in order and getting our act together. We have turned the corner in our recovery efforts."
Fletcher's evidence is the markedly quickened pace of activity throughout the agency and the shops of its hardware contractors in recent weeks. For example:
--During the last six weeks, the shuttle's sophisticated main engines have undergone test firings equivalent to six full orbital missions.
--A five-man crew, composed of veterans of the shuttle's most difficult flights, has been named to begin training for the first post-Challenger mission.
--Officials have expressed confidence that the first of the redesigned solid booster rockets, modified to prevent the seal failure that caused the Challenger tragedy, will be ready to ship from the Morton Thiokol plant in Utah to Florida's Kennedy Space Center in July.
--Contractors are nearing the completion of reviews of all the shuttle's safety-critical systems and components.
--A decision has been made to modify the orbiter hatch, installing explosive bolts to instantly remove it and give crew members a chance to bail out of a stricken shuttle in gliding flight once it has descended to 20,000 feet.
With 200 mandatory changes and another 200 "prudent" changes expected to be made, experts agree, that the shuttle will be a substantially safer vehicle when it flies again.
Months Before Decision
However, it will still be months until NASA and Morton Thiokol will be ready for the first full-scale test firings of its redesigned booster rocket--tests that will probably determine whether there is a chance to launch the shuttle Discovery 13 months from now.
"If we test our fix and find that it is wrong, that we haven't solved it, then we have another very major delay ahead of us," NASA Associate Administrator Philip E. Culbertson said. "We're all hoping, expecting that we have the solution, but we will have our fingers crossed until we get there."
And redesign of the huge booster rocket is only part of the tortuous recovery.
An investigation of the Challenger accident by a special presidential commission found that NASA itself needed fixing as badly as the notorious O-ring seals that leaked. The space agency, therefore, has given as much priority to its management and decision-making processes as it has to fixing the ill-designed booster.
After years of seeing its powerful Johnson, Kennedy and Marshall centers operate as competing fiefdoms overshadowing their national headquarters, the agency has moved to strengthen Washington's authority.
Three New Directors
Besides beefing up headquarters' management, NASA has put a new director in charge of each of the three centers responsible for the shuttle program. The centers have, in turn, carried out their own reorganizations, including larger safety units that report directly to center directors.
Fletcher still has not satisfied everyone that his management has been as firm as the situation demands.
The agency's recovery effort so far has been a "mixed bag," says Robert B. Hotz, retired editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine who served as a member of the presidential commission.