Needed: US consensus on space

AS investigators dig more deeply into the Challenger disaster, the issue of NASA's attention to safety is subsumed by the larger issue of the United States's attitude toward its space program as a whole. A decade and a half of roller-coaster funding with no clear long-term goals has eroded NASA morale. With the best will in the world, even a highly dedicated organization begins to lose the diamond-hard competence needed to operate on the challenging space frontier when it can't count on adequate funding and doesn't know where it's going. It now seems obvious that NASA did not pay adequate attention to shuttle safety in the sense that hindsight shows responsible senior officials did not take engineers' concern about booster rocket O-ring seals seriously enough. Investigators have not yet pinned the accident specifically on O-ring failure. But whether or not a seal failed during Challenger's ascent, a pattern of inadequate attention to safety regarding the seals has been established.

There were too many waivers of safety standards, as NASA Associate Administrator Jesse Moore's memos have highlighted. It was too easy to override specific concerns of Morton Thiokol engineers that booster temperatures were too low on the day of the launch. There was a definite lack of alertness in the failure of an inspection team to report dangerously low temperatures on the right booster rocket as indicated by an infrared sensor.

Certainly NASA safety standards and procedures need restudy and tightening. But past and present administrations and Congresses share responsibility for what has happened.

From its beginning in the early 1970s, the shuttle program has been funded at too low a level for its developers to carry out all the tests and include all the features they would have liked. Moreover, to protect even that restricted development effort, funds had to be siphoned off from other aspects of the space program as annual budgets fluctuated. James Fletcher, NASA administrator during the Nixon-Ford administrations, says that the uncertain funding which he and his successors endured forced a second-best course on shuttle development. In a general sense, it contributed to the Challenger accident.

The national ambiguity toward space goals has been another contributing factor. The shuttle, like all manned space flight efforts for decades to come, is a means of opening a new frontier for human activity. It is unrealistic to expect it to pay its way commercially. Yet NASA officials have been under pressure to make the shuttle ``cost effective.'' This led to a premature attitude that shuttle flights are routine operational activities in the sense that airline flights are ``operational.'' As now is evident to everyone, such an attitude is dangerously wishful thinking.

It's not just NASA that is in the throes of one of the most important crises of its existence. The United States space program as a whole needs to be rethought fundamentally. Establishment of a national consensus as to what the country should do in space -- both in terms of long-range goals and of the strategy to meet them -- has become a major national priority. The report of the presidential commission on long-term space policy, headed by former NASA Administrator Thomas Paine, will provide a starting point for debate. It should be available within the next month or so.

With that in hand, Congress and the administration need to arrive at a coherent space program that the country can sustain at a viable level year after year and administration after administration. It should recognize that space flight, at this stage, is an investment in the future. Its full payoff probably won't be realized in this century. It needs to be pursued in this spirit.

A failure to establish and consistently support a realistic, long-term program with clear goals would risk more space-flight tragedies in the future.

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