NASA: a regard for safety

NEITHER NASA, Congress, nor the administration seems to have learned the basic lesson of the Challenger tragedy. That accident showed the folly of putting budget or flight schedules ahead of a scrupulous regard for safety. Yet this appears to be happening again.

Last summer the booster redesign oversight committee of the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences warned the National Aeronautics and Space Administration about its proposed test firing schedule. NASA plans only four full-scale tests. The committee said this ``only meets minimal requirements.''

NASA subsequently decided to test the redesigned booster in a horizontal position. This goes against the feeling of the Challenger investigation panel that the rocket should be test-fired vertically -- the position in which it will actually be used. The NRC booster committee endorsed this decision, provided NASA substantially expanded those horizontal tests to duplicate all the forces encountered in launch and flight. It objected, however, to NASA's plan to run only one full-scale test of the booster's new nozzle.

Recently, the NRC committee overseeing shuttle flight rescheduling called NASA's revised plans too optimistic. Even with a replacement for the Challenger, the committee said NASA could sustain only 11 to 13 flights a year. Yet the agency's new manifest projects a rate of 5 flights in 1988, 10 in 1989, and 11 in 1990 with only a three-shuttle fleet.

Meanwhile, the House Science and Technology Committee has released its own report on the Challenger accident. It, too, is skeptical of NASA's ability to run a safe shuttle program.

This begins to look like a replay of the pre-Challenger situation. The House committee report cites both Congress and the White House for imposing pressures on NASA ``that directly contributed to unsafe launch operations.'' These pressures included lack of adequate funding.

These same pressures are building again. The administration has authorized a fourth shuttle. It's sticking with its commitment to build a space station in the early 1990s. The fourth shuttle is needed to keep that schedule. Yet the administration has left unsettled the issue of how to fund that new orbiter.

The House has endorsed the authorization. But it too has shown no clear intention of providing the extra money. Last month, the House voted overwhelmingly to fund Challenger's replacement and to get the shuttles flying again. But it also asked NASA to accept donations from the public and to explore private financing for the fourth orbiter.

At this writing the Senate has yet to act on the legislation. But NASA is already getting a message not to count on extra money for all its new shuttle needs. This puts the agency under the same budget pressure it felt before.

It's not enough to say that NASA officials should resist such temptation where safety is concerned. Congress and the administration have an obligation to back up the space program they authorize with adequate and timely funding. One of the lessons from the Challenger experience -- as the NRC has pointed out -- is the futility of NASA's trying to carry out a more ambitious space program than Congress and the administration are prepared to pay for.

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