Vice President Dan Quayle, touring an Orange County laboratory where scientists simulate conditions in space, criticized on Monday a loss of national zeal toward space exploration but assured aerospace workers that their industry "does indeed have a very bright future."
After getting a firsthand look at the "zero-gravity" lab at the McDonnell Douglas aerospace plant in Huntington Beach, Quayle spoke briefly to employees and school-age visitors as part of a four-day tour around the state. His wife, Marilyn, also took part in a mock disaster drill in Los Alamitos.
The focus on space during the vice president's visit came three days before the 20th anniversary of astronaut Neil Armstrong's historic moonwalk and formed a prelude to what is expected to be a major policy statement on the issue by President Bush later this week.
Hundreds of employees at McDonnell Douglas jammed the plant's courtyard to catch a glimpse of the vice president. Many were hoping that he "might give us some insight into what the future holds for us" at a time when federal funding for space programs has appeared uncertain, said Troy Richardson of Garden Grove, a procurement worker who attended the talk.
But Quayle, chairman of the newly re-established National Space Council, which advises the Administration on space policy, shied away from discussing specific programs and directions. He did, however, make clear that the Bush Administration "is committed to a vigorous and energetic space program for America."
Suggesting several times that past policies in space have fallen short, he said the Administration intends to see that the United States "gets back into the space business."
At a talk earlier in the day in Long Beach before the Western Governors' Assn., Quayle expanded on his criticism of past policies, saying the government's lack of financial commitment and direction in the space program has created a "dramatic decline" in the numbers of aerospace scientists, engineers and others in the field.
Pointing later to the hundreds of "future scientists" from local schools and youth groups who heard him talk at the McDonnell Douglas plant in Huntington Beach, Quayle said the presence of the children marked "a very good sign that the space program is on its way to recovery."
Marilyn Olin of Laguna Niguel, who brought her Girl Scout troop to hear the vice president, said: "It was absolutely thrilling for all of them, an opportunity to be so close to someone of such national importance."
Excited schoolchildren from the summer program at Sowers Middle School in Huntington Beach shouted, "I shook his hand! I shook his hand!" after the appearance. But several in the group, professing no interest in space, said they were disappointed that Quayle had not told them much about what it was like to be vice president of the nation.
Quayle also faced an occasionally tough audience at a morning breakfast with reporters in Los Angeles. Asked about his apparent penchant for verbal gaffes, Quayle blushed deeply, fiddled with his coffee cup and said: "Well, everybody can make a mistake. . . . If that's the worst thing I do in the next six months, then the first six months will be in pretty good shape."
Speaking earlier this week about the anniversary of the moonwalk, Quayle mistakenly referred to former astronaut Buzz Aldrin of Laguna Beach as "Buzz Lukens." Donald E. (Buz) Lukens was the Ohio Republican congressman who was recently convicted of having sex with a minor.
And in a recent talk to the United Negro College Fund, he said, "What a waste it is to lose one's mind," a confusion of the group's slogan, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."
Despite the slip-ups, Quayle told reporters that he is winning over those who doubted his abilities to handle the vice presidency and has learned to trust his own judgment after a draining political campaign that made him the target of intense criticism over his National Guard service and other issues.
"There were a lot of skeptics during the campaign about how I would work out, but now they're seeing it work out in a very normal, comfortable way," he said. "I think I'm being reviewed well as vice president because people see how I am performing--the responsibility I have, the working relationship I have with the President."
He added: "When you go through that kind of day-in and day-out barrage, you really have to dig down deep inside and ask yourself what you're made of. 'Do you have it?' . . . When you looked at yourself in the mirror in the morning you had to realize that what had gotten you to the place you are is yourself. And the one critical mistake that I made was to rely on the advice of others. If I had it to do over again, I'd do it differently."
Also Monday morning, Marilyn Quayle trumpeted one of her own special causes during a visit in the county. At the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center, she got a demonstration of an Orange County-based program that trains volunteers to respond to emergencies and disasters nationwide.
The local program of the National Disaster Medical System, run jointly by various federal agencies in conjunction with the local chapter of the Red Cross, is one of only a half-dozen like it in the country.
Marilyn Quayle, an advocate of greater emergency preparedness, asserted the need for greater coordination and attention to the program but backed away from the issue of direct federal funding. "Just don't ask me for money," she joked to the group of volunteers who attended the visit.
Staff writer Keith Love in Los Angeles contributed to this report.