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Think the United States should go to Mars? Or back to the moon? Build a space station? Or even just launch satellites on a timely basis?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration used to be the answer to such questions; today it's the obstacle. NASA now stands between the United States and success in space.Recent problems such as the defective Hubble telescope and the grounded shuttle fleet are inklings of much deeper flaws. NASA has been transformed from a can-do agency that represented the best in government to a can't-do bureaucracy embodying the worse aspects of British Admiralty stagnation, self-protection and the military-industrial mind-set.

At NASA, it no longer matters how many months or millions anything takes, as long as all personnel keep their jobs and all contractors continue receiving business.

``We absolutely cannot get anything done any more,' said a recently retired NASA official. ``We've stopped thinking and stopped innovating. All NASA energy now goes to endlessly re-justifying the budgets for bad ideas from the past. We haven't had a winner new idea since Skylab.' Skylab was launched in 1973.

Consider these current NASA failings:

The Hubble telescope's most basic quality - whether its two primary lenses worked - was never tested before launch. This happened despite the fact that NASA had three extra years - caused by flight suspension after Challenger - to work on the instrument. After the flaw was revealed, NASA complained it was because there was not enough money. The project came in about $400 million over budget as it was.

Two shuttle mission commanders were recently suspended from flight duty.

The space station, with construction costs up from $8 billion to $37 billion even as the design has shrunk, will require more maintenance than previously acknowledged, NASA now admits. And there's still barely any explanation of what astronauts will do once abroad.

Though environmental science is a pressing political issue, NASA's $17 billion ``crash' initiative won't put the first environmental research satellite into orbit until the next century.

A Mars mission, whose potential price-tag NASA will not discuss publicly, may cost $500 billion, according to internal agency estimates.

The White House just announced permission for U.S.-built satellites to be launched aboard Soviet rockets from a for-profit spaceport to be built in Cape York, Australia. The U.S. commercial satellite industry had been pressuring for this because the Cape York consortium promises lower prices than NASA or any U.S. company can provide. This is perhaps the most frightening indictment of the U.S. space effort.

The space shuttle fleet has been grounded because of hydrogen fuel leaks, but that's the least of its problems. Launching cargo on the shuttle can cost 10 times as much as using expendable rockets. The shuttle continues to be unreliable, with a peak launch rate of nine flights per year instead of the 50 NASA promised.

Statistical studies by the National Research Council continue to suggest another shuttle flight catastrophe is probable. The shuttle still relies on the no-turning-back solid-rocket boosters that destroyed Challenger.

``The way you get ahead inside NASA,' said the former NASA official, ``is by denying there are problems and being the loudest one to attach the blame for anything that goes wrong to critics.'

In the wake of the Challenger disaster, no NASA official was fired - not even those involved in trying to hush up the warnings from Morton Thiokol engineers.

Today the White House is upset about NASA performance, but continues to allow Vice President Dan Quayle to run space policy. Nothing could please NASA deadwood more.

Quayle does not challenge NASA's basic assumptions. With much fanfare last month, he announced a high-level task force to assess NASA priorities and performance. Who will sit on it? Quayle said NASA would pick the members.

Look for a hard-hitting report.

See no evil

Actually, although significant segments of the engineering and space-science communities are dismayed about NASA, it might be difficult to find experts who would say this publicly. This is partly due to disgust with the fact that the thorough report of the Rogers Commission - after the Challenger disaster - went straight to the discard pile.

But it is largely because, if your career involves space science or engineering, you cannot be on record criticizing NASA. It is a monopoly, the only game in town.

What is the most basic problem with NASA that many know but refuse to say in public? That the agency must move on from the space shuttle.

Technologically, the shuttle is a remarkable achievement. But operationally the system is a white elephant. The shuttle is far too expensive to launch more than a few times a year; far too complex to be reliable, and its premise is elementally flawed because it risks precious human lives on prosaic cargo-delivery missions.

How can the Soviet Union stage some 90 space launches per year and the United States only about 15? Because, for the majority of missions, the Soviets use relatively low-tech, low-cost ``dumb' boosters.

The Soviet Union has a space shuttle. It's been launched once - because the Soviets cannot afford to operate it. Under perestroika, Soviet scientists have been more open about criticizing its impracticality than U.S. scientists have been about our shuttles.

NASA refuses to make the slightest concession about shuttle use because any alternative would diminish the role of astronauts. Full employment for astronauts is NASA's non-negotiable demand: the reason for NASA's insistance in the early 1970s both on building a space shuttle and halting all research into throwaway rockets; the reason for insistence on a space station that is continuously inhabited.

Astronaut employment is a NASA fixation not so much because of the relative handful of astronaut jobs, but because of the thousands of astronaut-related jobs in the NASA hierarchy and at NASA contractors. Shuttle fixation lies at the heart of NASA's bureaucratic miasma.

Forget the shuttle

How can the NASA logjam be broken? The nature of the U.S. space fleet must be changed. Here's how:

1) Park the shuttle. The shuttle fleet should be converted from a payload-delivery system into scientific research vehicles able to stay in space for a few weeks at a time. For pure research purposes, the shuttle would fly three or four times per year.

Astronauts and scientists working in the shuttle bay could perform all the basic research and commercial manufacturing experiments proposed for the space station.

A science module for the shuttle bay, called Spacelab, already exists. Originally, Spacelab missions were to be regular shuttle events. Now NASA is trying to pretend the module has vanished into a black hole because its availability at a tiny fraction of the space station's cost is embarrassing to space-station funding prospects.

2) Cancel the space station. It won't be necessary if step 1 is taken, and money saved could be used to fund steps 3 and 4.

3) Build new boosters. It's absurd for the United States to debate a Mars mission when we can't even get routine payloads into low-Earth orbit. This is like arguing over the rules for a road race when you don't own a car. NASA's first priority should be developing affordable launch systems that work.

Using current advances in computer science, materials technology and aerodynamics, it should be possible to design new throwaway boosters that would have at least as much power as those in use - yet be far cheaper.

4) Build a spaceplane. More than 30 years ago, the Air Force was routinely dropping the X-15 spaceplane from a B-52 bomber, flying it to the lower reaches of orbit and bringing it back for standard landings on runways. The X-15 program was put together quickly, didn't cost much and never had an accident. Forward into the past!

For those missions when people are required, a new spaceplane may be the answer. Several proposals are circulating for a spaceplane that would be carried aloft on the back of a 747, then released to ignite rocket engines and transport six to 10 people into orbit.

The spaceplane does have one technical drawback that drives NASA crazy: It would be impossible to build a huge spaceplane. The vehicle would be for crew and small payloads only, which means spaceplanes could not take large satellites into orbit, resulting in a lower percentage of manned space launches.

It is for this reason that NASA hates, hates, hates any mention of spaceplane.

A new U.S. space fleet based on science-only shuttles, cheap new ``dumb' boosters for most cargo launches and a spaceplane would make NASA programs affordable, flexible and reliable. The agency would be shaken up from top to bottom during the conversion, breaking bad habits and instilling new vision.

NASA would have an exciting short-term goal - building and testing the new fleet - and far greater prospects for exciting long-term goals, once affordable and practical means of access to space comes into existence.

Whos's in charge?

These are the kinds of issues - not whether to send men to Mars - that ought to be attracting White House attention.

Leadership starts at the top. It is no coincidence that NASA was most effective during a period when two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, showed they were personally concerned with outcome of missions.

Since then the United States has not had a president who exerted constructive pressure on NASA, one reason for its institutional decline. Richard M. Nixon hated space, which he considered a Democratic program; he pushed the agency toward issuing lies about shuttle cheapness, creating the self-deception that still haunts NASA.

Ronald Reagan had a negative impact, imposing no cost controls during the heady first-term; then, after Challenger, firing no one and granting an immediate budget increase - the worst message to send a bureaucracy that has screwed up.

Now comes George Bush. He's already increased the NASA budget 36 percent in the past two years. And he is talking about vast new NASA budget increases for the space station, a moon base and perhaps Mars.

Presidential leadership is the key to reform. The agency will not reform itself; and too many members of Congress will fight to the death to preserve existing spending in their districts to make Congress a likely source of NASA change.

But Bush has yet to send the get-tough signal. Letting NASA appoint its own self-study commission is hardly going to get the agency's attention.

Putting Quayle in charge of space policy will not make any entrenched bureaucrat lose a moment's sleep. In fact, Quayle's presence sends the signal that NASA can get away with murder. If Bush were serious about NASA reform, Washington insiders know, he would have assigned somebody else.

It's time NASA chart a new course to the stars.

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