NASA Hopes Successful Shuttle Flights Will Ease Stigma
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ It’s admittedly a long shot, but NASA officials are hoping this week’s test on Atlantis’ fuel system will find the shuttle free of leaks and ready to fly next month.
″If we can fly again, it might take away some of the stigma,″ said David Winterhalter, director of systems engineering and analysis for NASA.
Winterhalter and others in the beleaguered space agency say there’s nothing to lose and possibly much to gain - public confidence, in particular - by tightening bolts in Atlantis’ leaky fuel line and repeating the tanking test for a third time. The test is scheduled for Wednesday.
″The public, NASA employees, we’ll all be real happy to get the next successful launch behind us and go on to the next,″ said Keith Hudkins, chief of NASA’s shuttle orbiter program.
Both Atlantis and Columbia have been crippled by hydrogen leaks that, until last week, had grounded the three-shuttle fleet. The leaks, believed to be in different places on each vehicle, were not discovered until the shuttles were moved to the launch pad.
Discovery, meanwhile, has its own problems. One of 44 thrusters was dented when it fell off a work stand Thursday. A new $600,000 thruster will be installed.
NASA’s bad luck with leaks isn’t limited to shuttles. On Friday, a helium leak forced postponement of the launch of an unmanned Atlas rocket carrying a NASA and Air Force satellite designed to illuminate Earth’s normally invisible magnetic field.
The problem was corrected by rocket builder General Dynamics, but plans for a second launch attempt Sunday were scrapped because of bad weather. Another try may be made Monday.
John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said it will take more than a successful shuttle launch to get NASA back on track.
″The agency is supposed to be doing more than just getting shuttles launched,″ he said. ″That’s important, but in a sense it’s the minimum requirement.″
Logsdon expects it will take years for NASA to clear its name over the debacle created by the Hubble Space Telescope, a $1.5 billion project unable to fulfill its potential because of a flawed mirror that cannot be repaired until 1993 at the earliest.
NASA’s proposed space station Freedom has come under attack by Congress, too. A study released Friday shows up to 10 spacewalks a week will be needed to maintain outside components of the station unless major design changes are made.
The Bush administration last week ordered an outside panel of experts to consider the long-term direction of America’s space program.
Most of NASA’s problems, according to Logsdon, are not of NASA’s making.
″They are the reflection of the country not lowering its expectations at the same time it lowers the budget,″ he said.
In fiscal 1964, as the agency busily prepared for the Apollo moon landings, NASA’s $5.1 billion budget represented a record 3.85 percent of the federal budget. NASA’s budget for the current fiscal year is $12.3 billion, not quite 1 percent of the federal budget.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is requesting $15.1 billion for fiscal 1991, which begins Oct. 1. That’s 1.09 percent of the federal budget.
″The agency has learned to lie to itself about what it can do″ with the available resources, Logsdon said. ″The feeling is if there’s total honesty, they’ll lose even more political support and priority and have an even smaller budget.″
NASA officials are quick to point out the trouble with Hubble is totally different from the shuttle problems, all but unavoidable in such a complex craft.
″It doesn’t mean when you fail that you’re no good at managing. It means that’s the nature of this business,″ NASA Administrator Richard Truly said during a congressional hearing last week.
Technicians tightened most of the 48 bolts on Atlantis’ leaky fuel line on Friday in a last-ditch attempt to correct the leak at the launch pad.
If no leaks are detected when liquid hydrogen is pumped into Atlantis’ external tank Wednesday, NASA will attempt to launch the shuttle with a classified Defense Department payload in mid-August.
If Atlantis must be returned to the hangar for repairs, only one shuttle can fly before Discovery’s October flight with the sun-probing Ulysses satellite. NASA will either move Columbia back out to the pad for an early September liftoff or give Atlantis a new external tank and try for a mid- September launch.
Nine shuttle flights originally were scheduled for 1990. So far, only three missions have been flown, but NASA still hopes to get eight flights finished by year’s end.
″Each year we’re going to fly more than what we’re flying this year. That’s the plan,″ Hudkins said. But, he noted, ″We’re not going to fly any shuttle before it’s time.″