A Close Look at NASA

THE scrubbing of the Columbia shuttle mission for the third time in four months, following a fuel leak, comes as another blow to the US space program. Columbia now won't launch for months. Let's hope the shuttle Discovery gets off the pad in October in time to put the Ulysses space probe into the proper orbit. Discovery, it turns out, has a problem with its cooling system. What's going on, NASA? The shuttle problems come at the end of what must be the worst summer in US space history. The $1.5 billion Hubble scope gave us blurry photos of the galaxies. Flaws were then found in new weather satellites. Fuel leaks mean only three of the nine planned 1990 shuttle missions have been launched so far. And this on top of revelations that the $37 billion space station, to be built and launched by 1995, has serious, costly design problems.

The US needs a top-flight space program. It needs the excitement of discovery and the innovations and useful technical spin-offs NASA has always provided. Yet repeated failures indicate something is amiss. As NASA historian Alex Roland says, the agency is in danger of doing ``the near-impossible - which is to kill the American love affair with the space program.''

That, among other reasons, is why a major reconsideration of NASA is in order - from its basic mission, to the quality of its staff and operations, to its funding priorities and how well it supports America's overall science efforts. Glorious and expensive ($70 billion) notions of a moon base and Mars mission need to be placed in the context of NASA's actual recent record of not getting even the basics right.

Vice President Quayle's special National Space Council panel will be looking broadly at such issues. The panel needs to have some teeth - not just mollify the public.

A number of specific issues demand investigation: Are NASA staff and engineers faltering in quality and technical achievement? Is NASA understaffed in key areas? What is behind the lack of precision in engineering projects? Is it true that the consigning of formerly important projects to outside consultants and contractors has been detrimental to the agency's mission? Critics say NASA officials have consciously misled Congress and the public regarding the expense and achievability of projects like the space station. Is this true?

What about the attitudes and the supporting culture inside NASA? Has that atrophied? Is it necessary to restore the seriousness of mind and purpose and work so critical to making scientific progress and breakthroughs?

Such questions must be asked, answered - and action taken.

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