Despite Hubble and Trouble, An Expert Says NASA Is Worth It

updated 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When the space shuttle Challenger's mission ended in a fiery explosion in 1986, the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts who had hoped to join the rich tradition of American space exploration. But for some, who vividly remembered the glory days of Alan Shepard, John Glenn and the Apollo missions, Challenger also became a tragic symbol of the precipitous decline of the U.S. space program. In the wake of the disaster, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration reeled from charges of faulty engineering decisions and lack of safety precautions.

Four years later, NASA still finds itself struggling to prove that the agency has been revitalized. Last month NASA revealed that the $2.8 billion Hubble Space Telescope, which promised to provide the most dramatic improvement in space observation since Galileo, had a flaw in one of its mirrors and transmitted images that were no better than those received by existing earthbound telescopes. In addition, two shuttle vehicles, the Columbia and the Atlantis, developed dangerous hydrogen fuel leaks, causing the shuttle's scheduled flights to be put on hold. Adding to NASA's image woes was the news two weeks ago that two of its shuttle commanders, Robert "Hoot" Gibson, 43, and David Walker, 46, had been suspended. Gibson was grounded for one year after a collision at an air show in Texas, while Walker was suspended for 60 days following a near collision last year with a commercial jet at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C.

With this barrage of bad news, the White House announced that a panel of experts, chosen by NASA chief Rear Admiral Richard Truly, will be set up to analyze the agency's future. John Logsdon, 52, director of a think tank called the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is one critic of NASA who believes that its problems remain deeply rooted in the organization's structure and bureaucratic inertia. He spoke with correspondent Linda Kramer about NASA's prospects for change while still pushing ahead with space exploration.

Is NASA in worse shape now than it was after the Challenger disaster?

Almost. They've now had four years to recover and correct the faults that were uncovered by Challenger, and yet even now, in mid-1990, we see that some of them are still with us.

What is the agency's most serious problem?

There is a crisis of confidence both inside and outside NASA. The majority of informed observers have real skepticism about the institutional patterns and behavior that NASA has fallen into. For instance, I think the agency believes that the only way to sell a program—and the proposed $30 billion space station is a recent example—is by underestimating the cost and promising benefits to everybody. It is the unfortunate nature of our political system that expensive long-term programs require overselling. But if the choice is between overselling and underpricing or no project at all, it's clear which way NASA or any other agency is going to go.

Is the Hubble program a good example of the overselling/underpricing phenomenon?

Yes. Hubble is a program that reflects lots of political and institutional compromises. It was a compromise between the ambitions of the astronomers who wanted a bigger and more capable piece of equipment and the willingness of Congress to foot the bill. The cost began going up, and it took NASA longer than it should have to admit that it had a budget and a management problem.

What exactly is wrong with Hubble?

One of its two mirrors is misshapen, which produces unfocused images. The Hubble problem was the result of poor engineering practices somewhere down the line. The question for an engineer is how much risk, not zero risk. Zero risk is prohibitively expensive. Someone said the likelihood of this particular problem happening is so low and resources are so limited that we won't do the test.

This was a preventable error, and ultimately I think the individuals and institutions involved will have to take the responsibility for making a very expensive, very damaging error.

Should the Hubble project simply be written off?

Definitely not. It's a horrible mistake, and the error will require money and time to fix, but it is not money down the drain. Hubble will not work on the schedule anticipated, but it can still achieve its scientific goals in its planned 10-to 15-year lifetime.

Where do we stand with the shuttle program?

Unfortunately, the primary task of NASA at this point is to fly shuttles successfully. But the particular design of the shuttle and the decision to make it our sole launch vehicle rank as some of the worst public-policy decisions of the past half century. But if we want to continue to put humans in space, we need the shuttle. It's NASA's job to make it work.

Has NASA done anything right lately?

Certainly. Until the recent problems, there have been 10 perfect shuttle flights in the past two years. Another example is the Voyager mission, which was grand in conception and wonderful in execution. And it was done in such a way that allowed reprogramming and flexibility and risk taking as the mission unfolded. Last August changes were made that allowed Voyager to bring us the closest look at Neptune that we've ever had.

How would you compare NASA during the Apollo years to the agency today?

Apollo was about competition with the Soviet Union. In its inception, Apollo was a response to John Kennedy's political problems in 1961. He asked Lyndon Johnson to find him a program that "promised dramatic results in which we could win." The downside to the mission was creating an expectation that high-profile, fast-paced spectacular achievement is what the space program is about. What we've done since the Apollo missions is maintain the same expectations for success while providing just one-fifth of the resources.

The Bush administration has proposed a budget of more than $15 billion for NASA, the largest increase [24 percent] in funding since the Johnson administration. Should Congress approve this budget?

Yes, but Congress and the White House have to demand better performance from NASA. On the other hand, they should also sustain their support for NASA's programs over the many years it takes to carry them out.

How can the problems within NASA be fixed?

Some of the problems are deeply rooted in its very structure. The experience, the power and the money are located in a series of units around the country—such as the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The agency does not work together as a coherent whole but rather as a collection of rival fiefdoms. It seems to me that NASA has two new missions: One is the outward movement of people back to the moon and then to Mars, and the other is the large-scale Earth-observation program to understand global environmental changes. Both of these goals might be better served by creating new institutions to take on these challenges. I think new structures and new people to carry them out would be the right way to go.

What do you think of the proposed manned mission to Mars and the $30 billion space station?

Going to Mars is not yet a mission. It's more of a long-term direction. NASA should devote a number of years to study before they pick a particular way to go. After all, President Bush has set 2019 as the date for the initial Mars landing, and that is a long way off.

By contrast, the space station program suffers from a lack of agreement on what it is for, and that lack of focus is a barrier to effective planning for its development and use.

Considering the ever-increasing national debt, can we afford to push ahead with space exploration?

To say we don't have the resources to do something like this is specious. Despite all the negativism surrounding the space program, it has done great things. It has been one of the success stories of this country, and we've got to be careful not to lose that as we try to fix the current problems. Society would be much poorer materially and spiritually if we were not in space.

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