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Columbia Fallout May Hit Some NASA Centers

Campaign to close some facilities fiercely resisted by lawmakers whose states would lose jobs.

March 23, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

CLEVELAND — Think NASA, and two astronaut hubs named for former presidents come to mind: John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Texas. Most people wouldn't think of the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Ohio.

Yet NASA Glenn, named for the first American to orbit the Earth, employs 1,924 civil servants at a laboratory complex next to the Cleveland airport. That's 54 more people than the Kennedy center, where the space shuttles launch and usually land. And its annual operating expense of $350 million approaches Kennedy's $438 million.

NASA has 10 centers spread around the nation -- a network frozen in place since the end of the Apollo program that put men on the moon, even though the space agency's budget has declined sharply in that time. But following the Feb. 1 Columbia space shuttle disaster, some lawmakers say it is time for a hard look at whether some of the centers have outlived their usefulness and survived mainly for political reasons.

Closing a center, the lawmakers say, could eliminate potential overlap and free up money for the agency's core missions of aeronautical research and space exploration. Critics note that the Defense Department shed many bases after the Cold War in the quest for efficiency, and plans to cut more in 2005. NASA has not followed suit.

"I'd put all of it on the table -- the question of where the centers are and how to make the dollars stretch," said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a senior Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees NASA. "The credibility of the program's on the line. There's virtually nothing in government that you can say, 'Let's run it for 40 years unchanged.' "

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, suggested creating a base-closing commission for NASA akin to those that helped shut down military installations. The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, proposed the same idea in 1996. It went nowhere.

McCain charges that much of the spending Congress funnels each year to individual NASA centers amounts to "disgraceful" waste, unrelated to national priorities.

But, as is usually the case in Congress, a threat to any of the centers is likely to arouse fierce objections from lawmakers whose home states would lose jobs.

Proponents of the centers say each plays an important role. In Cleveland, the Glenn facility specializes in space vehicle propulsion, power systems that can harness solar rays and low-gravity research. It also studies jet engine noise and other aeronautical issues.

"We're kind of unique -- a hybrid center," said Donald J. Campbell, director at Glenn since 1994. He also said the center has adapted its work to meet NASA's needs.

Without doubt, the centers are nurtured by the senators and House members who represent them. The $15.4-billion annual NASA budget Congress passed in February was studded with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding the agency did not formally seek.

Much of that largess went to particular NASA centers or the universities, institutes and businesses linked to them.

One of the largest appropriations was $95 million for an unmanned probe to Pluto on the solar system's outer edge -- a project championed by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA.

While there are many scientific reasons to explore a planet never seen up close, a leading beneficiary of the Pluto funding will be the Goddard Space Flight Center in Mikulski's home state. NASA, bowing to congressional will, now recommends funding the Pluto project in the coming fiscal year.

Also tucked into the recent spending law were millions of unrequested dollars for visitor centers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and more than 120 other projects.

Congress has been spreading money across the country in this way since NASA was born in 1958.

NASA inherited several centers, including the one in Ohio, from an earlier aviation agency. Others were built or acquired during the race to the moon. In the 1960s and '70s, this network helped NASA build a sterling reputation as a risk-taking, high-performing federal agency.

While the agency has been rattled by two shuttle disasters in 17 years, backers say the network remains a cohesive system that effectively coordinates 19,000 civil servants and an even larger army of NASA contractors.

The two centers that manage human spaceflight -- Kennedy and Johnson -- rely on the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama for expertise on the shuttle's engines and on Stennis for rocket propulsion testing.

Two other centers focus on astronomy and unmanned space exploration: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena (managed for NASA by Caltech) and Goddard.

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