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NASA: WHAT GOES UP : A Can-Do Agency Becomes A Can't-Do Bureaucracy

July 22, 1990|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to Newsweek and the Atlantic

WASHINGTON — Think the United States should go to Mars? Or back to the moon? Build a space station? Or even just launch satellites and probes on a timely basis? The National Aeronautics and Space Administration used to be the answer to such questions; today it's the obstacle. NASA now stands between the United States and success in space.

Recent problems such as the defective Hubble telescope and the grounded shuttle fleet are inklings of much deeper flaws rippling through the agency. NASA has been transformed from a can-do agency that represented the best in government to a can't-do bureaucracy embodying the worst aspects of British Admiralty stagnation, ass-protection and the military-industrial mind-set. At NASA, it no longer matters how many months or millions anything takes, as long as all personnel keep their jobs and all contractors continue receiving business.

"We absolutely cannot get anything done any more," said a recently retired NASA official. "We've stopped thinking and stopped innovating. All NASA energy now goes to endlessly rejustifying the budgets for bad ideas from the past. We haven't had a winner new idea since Skylab." Skylab was launched in 1973.

Consider these current NASA failings:

--The Hubble telescope's most basic quality--whether its two primary lenses worked--was never tested before launch. This happened despite the fact that NASA had an unexpected three extra years--caused by flight suspension after Challenger--to work on the instrument. After the flaw was revealed, NASA complained it was because there was not enough money. The project came in about $400 million over budget as it was.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 12, 1990 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Column 5 Opinion Desk 3 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
NASA--An Opinion article on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by Gregg Easterbrook, published July 22, contained a factual error. It stated there were no accidents in the X-15 program. In fact, there was one fatality, in 1967.
Another paragraph, discussing James Thompson, now NASA deputy administrator, was factually correct but may have left an inaccurate impression. Thompson did not head the Marshall Space Center during the development of the solid-rocket boosters. He did head the center for a time when it was responsible for testing of the Hubble telescope.

--Two shuttle mission commanders were recently suspended from flight duty.

--The space station, with construction costs up from $8 billion to $37 billion even as the design has shrunk, will require more maintenance than previously acknowledged, NASA now admits. And there's still barely any explanation of what astronauts will do once aboard.

--Though environmental science is a pressing political issue, NASA's $17 billion "crash" initiative won't put the first environmental research satellite into orbit until the next century.

--A Mars mission, whose potential price tag NASA will not discuss publicly, may cost $500 billion, according to internal agency estimates.

--The White House just announced permission for U.S.-built satellites to be launched aboard Soviet rockets from a for-profit spaceport to be built in Cape York, Australia. The U.S. commercial satellite industry had been pressuring for this, because the Cape York consortium promises lower prices than NASA or any U.S. company can provide. That they can do something in space we can't is perhaps the most frightening indictment of the U.S. space effort.

--The space shuttle fleet is indefinitely grounded because of hydrogen-fuel leaks, but that's the least of its problems. Launching cargo on the shuttle can cost 10 times as much as using expendable rockets. The shuttle continues to be unreliable, with a peak launch rate of nine flights per year instead of the 50 NASA promised.

Statistical studies by NASA continue to suggest another shuttle flight catastrophe is probable. The shuttle still relies on the no-turning-back-solid-rocket boosters that destroyed Challenger.

"The way you get ahead inside NASA," said the former NASA official, "is by denying there are problems and being the loudest one to attach the blame for anything that goes wrong to critics."

In the wake of the Challenger disaster, no NASA official was fired--not even those involved in trying to hush up the warnings from Morton Thiokol engineers. The career of NASA Deputy Administrator James R. Thompson is a case in point. Thompson was director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Marshall was responsible for designing and supervising the solid rocket boosters that destroyed Challenger. Marshall also supervised testing of the Hubble. Yet Thompson is now No. 2 for the U.S. space program.

Today, the White House is upset about NASA performance, but continues to allow Vice President Dan Quayle to run space policy. Nothing could please NASA deadwood more. Quayle does not challenge NASA's basic assumptions. With much fanfare last week, he announced a high-level task force to assess NASA priorities and performance. Who will sit on it? Quayle said NASA would pick the members. It's hard to believe these words came from an adult. Look for a hard-hitting report.

Actually, although significant segments of the engineering and space-science communities are dismayed about NASA, it might be difficult to find experts who would say this publicly. This is partly due to disgust with the fact that the thorough report of the Rogers Commission--after the Challenger disaster--went straight to the discard pile.

But it is largely because, if your career involves space science or engineering, you cannot be on record criticizing NASA. It is a monopoly, the only game in town.

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