WASHINGTON — Plans for a permanent orbiting space station are threatened by unrealistic cost estimates, a shortage of adequate launching vehicles and serious management shortcomings, a prestigious scientific advisory panel said Monday.
The special committee of the National Research Council said that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's cost estimates for building the space station may be as much as $4.7 billion--or 30%--too low.
It said also that the current fleet of space shuttles is "barely adequate" to build the orbiting station and "clearly inadequate to meet broader national needs in space." The shuttle will be used to transport workers and materials to build and operate the space platform.
"Deploying the space station with the current shuttle, while not infeasible, will be difficult and risky," said Robert C. Seamans Jr., chairman of the advisory group and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of aeronautics and astronautics.
The 12-member panel was created four months ago by the White House to study the cost and progress of the space station project, which is scheduled for construction in 1994.
The group endorsed the overall goal of creating the permanent orbiting platform for scientific and commercial research but called into question some key aspects of the ambitious program.
It said that the project requires a decades-long commitment from the American people and urged that Congress provide adequate funding to support it. American experience has shown that major space programs cannot be developed "on the cheap," the report warned.
In light of the Challenger disaster last year, the group said: "It is dangerous and misleading to assume that there will be no shuttle losses and to fail to plan for such possibilities." The group recommended that a fifth shuttle orbiter be built before 1994.
The group estimated that, based on current performance, NASA should expect to lose a shuttle vehicle about once every five to eight years under normal launching schedules. With only a small fleet of orbiters available, even one such loss could have catastrophic effects on the future of the space station program, the scientists said.
Because of the unreliability of the shuttle, the committee recommended that NASA build a "crew emergency rescue vehicle"--a space-going lifeboat--to rescue astronauts who might be stranded on the space station. Currently, NASA plans to employ a life-supporting "safe haven" aboard the space station to shelter astronauts until a shuttle orbiter can fly up to rescue them.
In a written reply to the report, NASA disagreed that reliance on the shuttle in the building of the station would be risky. The agency said that it recently has redesigned the shuttle and the deployment plan for the space station and has "a high degree of confidence that the space station can be successfully deployed with the current shuttle system."
NASA disputed the council's cost estimates also, calling them "much too high." The agency put the additional cost for testing and spare parts at only $200 million, compared to the advisory panel's estimate of between $200 million and $4.7 billion.
Total research and development costs for the project are estimated at between $17 billion and $22 billion. Bringing the station into full operation will cost an additional $8 billion, the scientific panel said.
NASA did not endorse the suggestion that a fifth orbiter be built, stating that the agency "remains confident that the current fleet is adequate to support the space station program."
The advisory panel urged that the bureaucratic structure of the space station program be simplified by creating a single Space Station Program Office with direct responsibility for all space station-related activities.
Under the current structure, management of the project is shared by the space station office and the various NASA centers.
The result, the committee said, is confusion on budgets, conflicting priorities and poor coordination between the space station program and the shuttle program.