Congress likely to tighten rein on NASA. Lawmakers weigh slower launch schedule vs. cost of new orbiter

After 28 years as the Prince Charming of federal bureaucracies, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration faces a newly skeptical and inquisitive Congress. Lawmakers once seemed content to trust the integrity of the nation's space program to NASA's legendary fastidiousness. Now some lawmakers are beginning to talk about closer oversight of NASA operations, almost never mentioned in the days when the space agency's procedures were widely considered beyond reproach. The new atmosphere of skepticism, sometimes bordering on distrust, came out in the open for the first time during Senate committee hearings Tuesday.

The hearings were the first in what promises to be a long, confrontational series of congressional probes into the Jan. 28 shuttle accident.

Members of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on space heard testimony from NASA officials and members of the presidential panel investigating the accident. The cumulative effect of the testimony, said one committee staff member, was to give several senators the impression that NASA was not entirely in control of its own launch procedures, and that NASA may have sacrificed safety considerations to keep the program from falling irrevocably behind schedule. Indeed, one observer at the hearings likened the unusually pointed questions from Democratic members of the subcommittee to those heard at the Senate Watergate hearings.

``There are questions on so many levels that need to be answered, it is very important for NASA to do everything it can do to strengthen its credibility,'' says Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D) of Michigan, ranking member of the subcommittee. ``You're going to see closer oversight [of NASA] from every direction.''

For instance, NASA's top shuttle official, Jesse W. Moore, told committee members that he was not informed about unusually low temperature readings taken from the Challenger booster suspected of causing the accident. Mr. Moore testified that he would have ``asked some questions about what the readings indicated'' if he had been told about them.

Committee members were also surprised to learn of long telephone conversations between NASA officials and engineers at Morton Thiokol, which builds the shuttle's solid-rocket boosters. Apparently, Thiokol engineers warned NASA officials to postpone the launch, partly out of concern that cold weather prior to launch time might keep seals between booster segments from functioning properly. After hours of urgent conversations, Thiokol officials relented to NASA's wishes.

The timing of these hearings, as well as the efforts of the presidential commission investigating the accident, is especially critical as Congress grapples with the budget. With one of four NASA shuttles now gone, analysts say it will be impossible for the space agency to satisfy the payload demands of the Defense Department, private corporations, other countries, and scientists.

That presents Congress with two difficult choices: either to proceed with three orbiters, and thus significantly retard plans to develop and commercialize space; or invest more than $3 billion in a new shuttle at a time when the federal budget is about to shrink dramatically.

It is unlikely that conclusions drawn by congressional hearings into the shuttle accident's presidential commission would greatly influence such a decision. But if uncertainty over the cause of the accident continues to surround the commission's proceedings, participants in the congressional budget process warn it will make the job of drawing up NASA's fiscal 1987 budget tougher.

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