New Focus for NASA


Major changes could be in store for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, based on the recommendations of a 12-member committee set up this summer to study the continuing tales of balky equipment, poor handling of the space shuttle fleet and devastating problems aboard the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope.

What has emerged is a blueprint considered by many in NASA's scientific, political and contractor constituencies to be full of common sense.

The strongest point is a call to reduce dependence on the shuttles by building a new unmanned launcher. There is no reason the Astro-1 mission, cut short after some embarrassing failures, could not have flown on an unmanned rocket. Twelve years ago when Astro-1 was planned, however, scientists wished to take advantage of the shuttles' ability to bring it back for refurbishing and re-launch. Today, shuttle flights are at a premium. Chances of an Astro follow-on mission are slim. So $148 million worth of sophisticated astronomy gear goes into mothballs.

Moreover, an unmanned heavy-lift vehicle could easily have accommodated the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites, now also shuttle-bound. The Centaur upper-stage boosters -- too dangerous for a manned launcher -- which are planned for some missions, could also have fit.

Space failures are not restricted to American launchers, as embarrassments to the Ariane program and the Soviet missions have shown. But dependence on a single vehicle for deep orbital launches, earth-observation platforms, man-in-space experiments and near-earth science as well as military jobs is a recipe for disaster. NASA had enough warnings from scientists and military officers before the Challenger tragedy to know better.

The Freedom Space Station, a good idea turned into a boondoggle, came in for special scrutiny from the committee. It recommended the space station be smaller, less costly to lift, assemble and maintain and that its mission be focused on life sciences and zero-gravity experiments. This has practical short-term and long-term impact.

Finally, the committee recognized that only NASA, despite its faults, has the critical mass of scientific talent to sustain the nation's space program. NASA's main task, then, is to put aside its over-reaching attempts to do everything. That will hurt as some overblown dreams are shelved but it provides a realistic and fiscally pragmatic way for NASA to continue its march into space.

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