In nominating former Administrator James C. Fletcher to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) once again, President Reagan is turning to a man who has had ``hands-on experience'' in running the troubled space agency. He has also had firsthand experience with the problems of trying to develop a major new manned spaceflight system -- the shuttle -- while handicapped by inadequate and uncertain year-to-year funding and by lack of a clear mandate as to what the United States wants to do in space. These are problems which he, along with many space agency veterans, believes underlie NASA's troubles today.
Thus, if confirmed as administrator of NASA by the Senate as expected, Dr. Fletcher is likely to fight for strong and consistent NASA budgets aimed at achieving well-defined goals -- such as a manned space station -- even while he works to restore the agency's competence and morale to their earlier levels.
Discussing this during a telephone interview a few weeks ago, Fletcher said, ``I think the way NASA's budget was whiplashed during my [previous] tour and [my successors'] tours, it was hard to maintain technical quality.'' He added that, while he would not say the roller-coaster funding contributed directly to the Challenger accident, the budget uncertainties made it difficult for agency engineers to do the best technical job.
Fletcher came to NASA in 1971 during the Nixon administration and served through the administration of President Ford. He had been president of the University of Utah, having helped guide that institution through a period of rapid growth. Before that he had gained wide experience in the missile weapons industry.
When he took over, NASA was past the peak of its early popularity. It was two years since astronauts first walked on the moon. The Apollo program was winding down. The nation, including Congress, had no clear sense of what to do next in space. As veteran space analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University notes, ``It was a period in which the nation was unwilling to invest a lot of money in the space program and a period of retrenchment.''
This was in sharp contrast to the Soviet Union, which, even then, had long-term plans for establishing the permanently manned space station that it recently placed on orbit.
Fletcher was mindful during his previous period as NASA's leader both of the Soviet challenge and of the unfavorable domestic climate of opinion. He stressed developing practical uses for space -- such as communications and weather satellites -- even while urging a long-term investment in manned spaceflight, namely the shuttle. He warned then that ``if we wait too long with the shuttle, we may lose . . . much basic know-how. That would be a dangerous loss.''
He also was concerned in the early '70s about the failure to fund shuttle development at an adequate level, as he now believes turned out to be the case. In his opinion, this not only hampered technical development of the shuttle system but also left the country with too small a shuttle fleet. ``I would order two more shuttles and get back on schedule,'' he said recently.
Whether or not he will actually propose this to a deficit-conscious administration and Congress when he becomes NASA administrator remains to be seen.
Fletcher earlier expressed reluctance to accept a second tour as NASA chief, although indicating he would serve if asked. He observed that returning to full-time government service would require him to give up many of the interesting activities he now has under way as well as make a financial sacrifice.