Though sweeping reforms in the nation's space program are being urged by a White House panel, the changes can expect a generally favorable reception - at least outside of NASA.
Already the reforms are being welcomed by the key House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which opened hearings this week on the suggestions for improving the way NASA does its job.The warm reception is understandable. Congress is looking for reasonable ways to cut costs not just at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration but across the board. Besides, the scientific community has concluded that space can more effectively be explored with fewer people and more instruments. Meanwhile, the public has become more critical of NASA blunders.
The report from the White House panel a few weeks ago came after the discovery of a flaw in the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope, the disclosure of serious design problems in the planned $37 billion manned space station and the temporary grounding of the shuttle fleet by fuel leaks.
It doesn't take great expertise to see that NASA is open to legitimate criticism for shoddy engineering, poor workmanship, and failures in management.
In response, the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program is suggesting that the government:
- Shift cargoes away from the space shuttle to a new unmanned rocket.
- Redesign the proposed space station to make it cheaper and simpler, and to make its primary focus the study of life in space.
- Slow manned exploration of Mars to a "go as you pay" approach.
- Either exclude highly skilled NASA employees from civil service limits on pay and management flexibility or begin converting certain facilities to university-operated research centers.
These suggestions perform an adroit balancing act. NASA is to be overhauled, but not as drastically as some had insisted. Wisely, manned space flight is to be curbed but not abandoned. In some cases, there is still no substitute for humans in space, making decisions, doing jobs, and making observations that instruments cannot always do.
At the same time, the reforms would replace NASA's recent fuzzy sense of purpose with a more specific set of guidelines, including those designed to rein in soaring costs.
After all, if the United States is to remain at the forefront as a space-faring nation, it can do so only if it overcomes some serious financial problems on Earth, including but not limited to those directly associated with the space program.