Morale at NASA is as bad now as after the Challenger explosion - and another similar space disaster "could happen," outgoing NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher said in a Deseret News interview.

Fletcher, a former University of Utah president, said the source of such serious and surprising problems - especially after three successful post-Challenger missions - is not flawed technology or poorly designed rockets.The real culprit, he said, is Congress.

Fletcher also said NASA was treated shabbily by the Reagan White House but that things have improved under President Bush.

Two actions by Congress have led to what Fletcher calls a "big exodus" of top NASA officials who are taking with them key experience needed to avoid accidents.

Fletcher said Congress has failed to give top NASA officials raises, which were killed at the same time that Congress recently voted down its own controversial 51 percent raise. In addition, lawmakers passed "revolving door" legislation that would prohibit workers after May 16 from leaving government service to immediately work for aerospace contractors with whom they worked at NASA.

"The morale now is about down to when I came back (after the Challenger disaster) because of the pay-raise problem" coupled with the revolving door issue, Fletcher said. "I'm afraid they (top NASA officials) are saying, `I guess Congress doesn't care about us.' . . . so the morale right now is not too good. About six weeks ago (after the second successful post-Challenger mission), it was very high."

Fletcher added, "It might be dangerous for a year or two without that senior management group in charge. I hate to think of it, but we could have an accident. That's the situation that existed just before the Challenger accident. We had a lot of people having left, some other people who were temporary - and that contributed to the accident."

Fletcher said he is doing his best to convince the "White House and Congress to get this pay raise straightened out early. And, unfortunately, this procurement thing has a set target date of May 16 . . . not far away. So I'm trying to figure out how to put people in place."

Fletcher, who steps down next week as NASA administrator, will return to Utah to head the fusion research project at the U.

He said he and University President Chase Petersen "have a good relationship. There's a lot of exciting things going on. He called me just before his announcement on solid state fusion . . . . That would be the best thing that happened since the atomic bomb, and that was bad. In terms of breakthroughs, it will certainly be bigger than the transistor was . . . . But the jury's still out. It has to be verified."

He said Peterson "reminded me that there are a lot of things that started when I was there that are now coming to fruition. It's tempting to go back and help him finish up those things."

The disarray at NASA is an ominous ending to Fletcher's second term as NASA administrator - one that saw the space shuttle return to space, overcoming what Fletcher describes as numerous obstacles from the Reagan Administration, Congress and even the NASA bureaucracy.

After the Challenger exploded, former President Reagan looked for someone to restore confidence at NASA, oversee redesign of the space shuttle and ensure its safe return to space.

Fletcher, who had been NASA administrator for six years in the 1970s, didn't want his old job back, especially under such tough circumstances.

"I would never have come back if the president didn't twist my arm. But once he did, then I really had no choice . . . . I did get to call my wife and ask if she was willing to sign on to it. She said, `If you can think of any reason to get out of it, do it.' I didn't."

But Fletcher said he soon discovered having access to the president to discuss budget and other concerns was impossible; former Chief of Staff Donald Regan blocked his way.

"In (Regan's) book, he said somebody called him a dirty SOB. He said he's not dirty. That pretty well describes him. He was pretty protective of the president and had kind of a Marine orientation; a bully. But I wouldn't let him bully me, but I still didn't get very far.

"When (Howard) Baker came in (as Regan's replacement), he and his staff completely isolated the president. Quite frankly, I think the president after Irangate couldn't focus on anything except that particular problem. So his staff pretty well ran things, and they really treated NASA something awful.

"They knew they were lame ducks, and wanted to get out of there and on to their next job(s). What a refreshing thing when President Bush came in. He's a super president. I can't believe how it's night and day between the Reagan Administration and the Bush Administration" in listening to concerns and providing support.

Fletcher said personal attacks against him by Sen. Albert Gore, D-Tenn., who was at the time a candidate for president, were also painful. Gore claimed Fletcher used undue influence during his first term to ensure Morton-Thiokol in his home state of Utah would obtain contracts to make shuttle boosters. Congressional investigators cleared Fletcher of such charges.

The other most painful experience of his second term, Fletcher said, was his decision to move administration of the Space Station program from Houston to Washington - which led to attacks from Texas congressmen and NASA employees who had to sell homes in economically depressed Houston and buy new ones in high-priced Washington.

"Everything is space in Houston: astroturf, Astrodome, the Astros, the Houston Rockets. That's their whole thing. And their perception was that we were taking their life blood away from them. We were only taking the management of the space station back to where it was when we did the Apollo program."

But the space program overcame problems and returned to space, leading to what Fletcher said was the highlight of his second term.

"I think the Discovery launch in September was the high for everybody. We had tears among folks in the firing room when that baby got into orbit," he said.

After the third successful post-Challenger flight ended earlier this month, Fletcher decided that his mission to get the shuttle flying safely again was accomplished - and he announced he is stepping down. He said a new administrator is needed to pursue the long-term goals of getting a space station in orbit, proceeding with Earth-oriented research and sending man to Mars.

"I'm kind of the father figure who came back, and they all trust me. I know how to run organizations and put the right people in place," Fletcher said. But his successor should be "a salesman or an outgoing person who likes to play golf" to handle selling NASA to Congress and the public, with a good administrator as his second in command.

Looking back at his NASA job - which he has now held longer than anyone else ever has - he said, "It was probably the worst job in Washington in the time I came to it . . . But to me if you're going to work in government, it's the best job in government."