NASA -- rockets on hold

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THE presidential commission on the Challenger disaster warrants the appreciation of the American people for putting the space shuttle program -- and the faulty managerial problems of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- in clear, no-nonsense perspective. Although the final document was reportedly toned down so as not to destroy long-range public confidence in the United States space effort, the report was unsparing in its criticisms -- and specific in its recommendations.

Congress, which begins its own hearings into the Jan. 28 disaster this week, will surely tighten up its own oversight into the space program. It is to no one's credit -- either in the White House or in Congress -- that internal procedures within NASA had become so clogged with bureaucratic inertia that vital information about crucial engineering flaws and dangers of cold-weather launches failed to reach higher-ups.

Lawmakers should insist that before the manned shuttle program resumes, each and every recommendation made by the presidential commission be followed through to the letter.

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Some analysts have suggested that the commission's findings may spell the end of the manned shuttle program and perhaps even threaten the future of the US space effort. We would have to disagree. The agenda for the space program, including the shuttle, needs to be more clearly defined. A more balanced program -- involving unmanned and manned flights -- is required. NASA needs to insulate itself from private, public, or political pressures producing a sense of haste. And there needs to be less faith in ``technology'' -- and more regard for careful planning and attention to detail. But all that is in the realm of the attainable. Americans have proved themselves highly resilient over the years -- taking whatever steps were necessary to correct serious problems in national policies. The American public did just that in the 1960s, when manned space missions were put on hold for a year and a half following the deaths of three Apollo astronauts in a 1967 launch.

Surely the eventual success of the Apollo moon landing in 1969 was in no small measure a result of the self-correction -- and renewed sense of public duty by NASA officials -- that came out of the earlier tragedy.

Mankind's historic and adventurous ride to the stars will not be deflected by tragedy. But getting there should involve a scrupulous attention to managerial efficiency and regard for safety. About that there can and must be no compromise whatever.

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