Space on a Shoestring: NASA Reinvents Itself

The agency sending John Glenn into space today is not the NASA of 30 years ago.

By his own reckoning, Alan Ladwig has a dream job - drafting a blueprint for America's future in space.

But it's not without challenges, notes the senior adviser to NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. "I can get a roomful of space people together, and they can't agree on which programs to pursue," he says. "But that tells me there's a vast universe of opportunities."

As it prepares to launch John Glenn back into space today and the first US-built element of the International Space Station in December, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is struggling to reinvent itself for the next century.

What is emerging is a leaner agency dedicated more to exploration and R&D than to spaceflight management and operation, which increasingly will become the province of commercial companies. Some analysts even see private firms leading efforts to establish moon outposts, with NASA in only a supporting role.

The shift already has begun. The United Space Alliance, an aerospace consortium, manages space-shuttle operations at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA is providing seed money to companies interested in building new fleets of reusable rockets that cut the cost of sending cargo into space. In September, the agency picked 11 universities and research institutions to form the core of its Astrobiology Institute, which will focus on research into life in the universe. And last Saturday, NASA launched Deep Space 1, whose primary goal is to test a dozen new technologies for future spacecraft.

NASA was born 40 years ago this month. But the US agency that put humans on the moon, hurtled spacecraft beyond the solar system, and took humans on a telescopic trip to the edge of the universe is finding its first 40 years a tough act to follow.

"If you look at NASA and the moment and don't look behind the scenes, you see an agency reflying an American hero but not doing anything really exciting," says Patricia Dash, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington.

In fact, House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently lambasted the agency for making "space as boring as possible."

It's a perception NASA officials find grating. Mr. Goldin notes that NASA has launched space probes an average of once every 11 weeks recently, while missions are pulling in more data than they did during the heyday of the $1 billion space probes.

With a major orbiting observatory scheduled for launch on the shuttle in January, plus a decade-long set of missions to explore Mars, Ladwig replies, "Tell me again we're boring? I don't get it."

YET he and others acknowledge that the climate NASA operates in is much different than during the agency's heady early years, dictating changes in its role and limiting the size of projects it undertakes.

"NASA has not lost its way. The problem is in marshaling public support," says Robert Loewy, chairman of the aerospace engineering school at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Unstable funding is another constraint. "At the height of the Apollo program, we were 4 percent of the federal budget," Ladwig says. "Now, we're 0.7 percent of a $1.7 trillion budget, and our budget was cut by 3 percent for fiscal 1999.... Vision without a budget is fantasy."

At the same time, analysts say, the commercial space industry has grown dramatically; 1996 was the first year that private investment in space exceeded the amount spent by government.

Earlier this month, Congress sent President Clinton a bill designed to strengthen the role of private companies in space. Among other provisions, the bill directs NASA to look for ways to turn the shuttle and space station over to private operators, as well as buy launch services and scientific data from private companies. Meanwhile, companies are designing new reusable rockets, laying plans for tourism in space, and even preparing to fly to and claim ownership of an asteroid.

Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmidt believes private companies will likely set the priorities for human spaceflight as it becomes cost effective to mine resources on objects such as the moon. "I don't see NASA as in a position any longer to be a key player," he says. "But it can be a tremendous support organization for R&D."

He and others point to NASA's own roots as the model for the agency's space future activities.

NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was founded during World War I, "was an incredibly effective agency in developing technologies to support air and space enterprises in the US," says John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

To reach that point today, however, he says that NASA must survive the space-station project. Russia's inability to meet its commitments on a crucial component has led to costly delays. NASA has had to build a stand-in element. And it has crossed swords with the House Science Committee, which objects to throwing what members see as good money after bad and to NASA's already tight budget being used as a foreign-aid tool.

"NASA is in an incredibly vulnerable position on the space side," Dr. Hansman says. "It's committed to the space station, and the space station requires the shuttle." He is concerned that another orbiter accident like the 1986 Challenger explosion could shut down the agency. "We don't have the national commitment to endure another shuttle event."

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