THE deft performance of orbiting astronauts shows the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at its best. But the administrative mess that has come to light on the ground presents NASA at its worst.
Contractor and employee misconduct that the FBI uncovered recently at the Johnson Space Center in Houston is the least of it. NASA's inspector general has warned that the agency runs a high risk of waste and fraud. He told Congress last October that his office was investigating more than 400 possible criminal cases. He added that he couldn't perform his legal duty to audit the agency's books because they were so full of errors and inconsistencies. Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office has reported that NASA contractors hold some $14.3 billion in federal property. It accused the agency of failing to follow rules that prohibit providing equipment to a contractor, except under special circumstances. NASA has supplied such basic items as furniture, VCRs, even lawn mowers. NASA has not denied its inspector general's findings. Officials have said they are determined to tighten their management. But they have said that for years, with unsatisfactory results. As the GAO has noted, NASA does not need new management policies; it needs to implement effectively policies that are already in place.
This failure may be due more to NASA's haphazard development than to administrative neglect. As it took on a literally cosmic challenge, the agency evolved a system of semi-independent centers that have made spectacular achievements. But its legacy is a management system that is out of central control.
It is time to rethink NASA. So far, every attempt to do so has bogged down for lack of a unified vision of what the United States should do in space. NASA should drop its fixation with the space station and take a truly fresh look at its options. Its future funding is more likely to shrink than grow; little room remains for a big project that dominates its budget. A diverse program with smaller projects may make more sense. This, in turn may require a new, tightly managed structure.
The present system seems to be increasingly out of control as the agency flounders without a clear sense of direction. If this continues much longer, not even the skillful performance of astronauts can save NASA's credibility.