NASA recovering well, says space agency's administrator

NEARLY a year after the Challenger accident and eight months after he became NASA administrator, James C. Fletcher says America's space agency is recovering well. In fact, he's confident enough to hit the road for a series of discussions with news media editors and reporters.

It's encouraging to have an upbeat report from the man responsible for getting the United States space program moving again. But it's also worth noting the cautions and caveats that pepper his account:

Everything seems on track to launch a shuttle in February 1988 in accord with NASA's announced provisional schedule. In particular, Fletcher says engineers have solved the problems with the solid rocket booster, whose failure caused the Challenger loss.

Yet he adds that he isn't satisfied with the safety qualifications of the shuttle main engines and of the valves that control flow of hydrogen fuel to those engines. He says the shuttle won't fly again until he's satisfied with those qualifications regardless of the launch schedule.

Fletcher calls the $9.481 billion the administration is asking for NASA in fiscal 1988 ``a fair budget in light of the ... deficit.'' In fiscal 1987, NASA has $8.408 billion plus a one-time appropriation of $2.1 billion for Challenger's replacement. So, Fletcher says, there's a modest gain in the budget request that represents Presidential commitment to a strong space program.

Yet he notes that the budget does not provide for expendable launch rockets, which NASA will need. Additional funds will have to be sought for those later this year. Furthermore, while the budget provides for developing NASA's space station, Fletcher says, ``It's very clear to all of us, inside and outside of NASA, that if we want to reestablish leadership in the manned space arena, we can't do it with our current budget. So that's a real question: How important is it to reestablish that leadership?'' Right now, the Soviets, who have had a space station for over a decade, lead in manned space flight.

As announced last Friday, NASA has reorganized to operate more efficiently and safely. Headquarters has reestablished direct control of manned space flight programs - control that had been vested in the Johnson, Kennedy, and Marshall centers at Houston; Cape Canaveral; and Huntsville, Ala. Intercenter rivalry had hurt the shuttle program. Communication and cooperation among the centers now is greatly improved, Fletcher says.

Yet he adds that his agency is only half way toward the goal of reestablishing a high level of morale and motivation throughout its manned space flight team. ``We've got a ways to go before people are all behind the program marching together,'' he says. He observes: ``Center directors are talking to center directors and they're always saying nice things about the other center directors. That's got to filter down to the troops.''

In short, NASA's leadership, as represented by the administrator, seems cautiously optimistic about America's space future. But the space program isn't out of the woods. There's no guarantee that shuttles will fly again in 13 months. There's no guarantee that NASA will get the funds for an adequate fleet of expendable rockets. There's no guarantee, when NASA proposes goals beyond the space station, that the Reagan administration or its successor will adopt and seek to fund them.

In other words, the long-term vigor - let alone leadership - of the United States space program remains in doubt.

As Fletcher points out, the United States can still claim leadership in space science because of its strong planetary and Earth satellite programs. However, he also explains that those programs are hostage to NASA's launch capacity. Without enough unmanned rockets to supplement the shuttle, United States space science leadership could slip away.

As for manned space flight, the space station alone will not give the United States a leadership position. NASA will present a post-1995 program. That will take extra money. NASA needs to start soon to build the technological base it will need to implement new programs in 1995, when the station is finished. If the country can't afford to do this, it will likely remain second in manned space flight.

Fletcher says he wants to leave his successor a strong management team, a stable agency, and challenging programs and goals, including a long-term post-space-station mission. We wish him well.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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