After leading NASA for nine of its 30 years, former Utahn James C. Fletcher steps down today from the post he held longer than anyone else in history.

He spent part of his last full work day Friday outlining the problems NASA still faces and defending the University of Utah cold fusion experiment - which may involve much of his future.Fletcher said he plans to stay in Washington for the immediate future to help his successors at NASA learn "what skeletons we have in the closet." But he has agreed to other part-time work, including serving on the boards of directors of some companies and working on a fusion task force in Utah.

"I've agreed to chair a task force at the University of Utah to decide what the state and the U. should do with this new (fusion) discovery. That will be on a part-time basis.

"I have been in negotiations with the president of the U. about possibly going back and being a member of the faculty. But those discussions are ongoing. I will be out in May talking about that part of my assignment." He added he will also discuss possibly joining in the fusion research himself.

Fletcher, who is a physicist and a former U. president, also defended the fusion experiment - which has been the subject of skepticism by other physicists.

"It is fusion, there's no question about that," he said.

"There is some question about whether the fusion is causing the increase of energy that seems to be coming out of that fusion experiment. . . . If it's the normal kind of fusion process, you wouldn't expect that much energy because there would be so much radiation around it that it would cause damage to the individuals doing the experiment.

"The big question is what are you going to do with it. It is a different kind of fusion than we are used to. And whether you can get actual, commercially viable energy out of it - those are the big questions remaining."

He fears the biggest problem facing NASA is that many of its senior managers may leave because Congress killed a pay raise for them when it voted recently against a pay raise for its own members.

Fletcher said he hopes President Bush and Congress can work out a raise or redefinition of the new, somewhat vague procurement legislation, or NASA will lose "about half" of its senior administrators. He worries such a loss of experience could lead to another disaster such as the Challenger explosion.

He said NASA also needs to detail procedures on how to resolve problems after the next space disaster, which he said will surely come sooner or later.

"I don't believe our recovery from the Challenger accident was done in the optimum way," he said. "It shouldn't be necessary, for example, to bring an old bureaucrat back to straighten things out after an accident."

Fletcher said while he believes he successfully reorganized NASA to work better as a team and returned the shuttle to space, he failed to excite the imagination of Congress and the nation about plans for space exploration.