The two pages of photo illustrations accompanying the May 30 article on NASA were wrongly credited. The artist was Tom Preston. (Published 7/18/93)

Out to Launch

Distracted, the dog glanced up at the gaggle of jostling photographers. Peeved, the cop yanked on his leash and the beast reluctantly went back to work, sniffing a line of camera bags that was laid out across the pavement. The canine nose uncovered no hint of bombs or weapons, so the photographers were permitted to pick up their bags and shuffle 10 yards forward to a short fence guarded by a SWAT team cop holding a nasty-looking 9mm Glock pistol.

It was not yet 6 in the morning. Dawn was breaking over the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Fla. The countdown clock was running, with about four hours to go before blastoff. But first, at precisely 6:36, there would be a strange little ritual -- the "Astronaut Walkout." That's why the photographers were here, jockeying for space along the fence. There were about 50 of them, from all over the world, fiddling nervously with their cameras and watching NASA officials whisper into walkie-talkies.

And then, right on time, the astronauts walked out of the nondescript building where they'd spent the night. There were seven of them -- five Americans and two Germans -- each clad in a bright orange flight suit and high-top black sneakers. They smiled and the cameras clicked like Gatling guns. They waved and the cameras clicked some more. Then they walked about 20 steps and climbed into a pudgy silver Airstream trailer.

That was it. The aptly named "Astronaut Walkout" took about a minute. It was an utterly absurd event, except for one thing: If this shuttle blew up, as the Challenger did back in 1986, then these pictures would appear in every newspaper in the world -- last shots of the brave, grinning heroes alive! Which is precisely the reason for the Astronaut Walkout: This cute little photo op is really a grim little death watch. The photographers know it and the astronauts know it, but everybody pretends otherwise and keeps smiling. It's one of the bizarre rites of space flight.

The Airstream pulled slowly out of the parking lot, carrying the astronauts to launch pad 39A, where the shuttle Columbia stood glistening in the day's first light, filled with half a million gallons of rocket fuel. Then NASA's "Official Visit Escort" marched the photographers back to two grungy buses, which took them to the geodesic dome where the press awaits blastoff.

Inside the dome, reporters huddled over portable computers, banging out stories about an event that had not yet occurred. Some of the veterans wrote three advance stories: one for a liftoff, one for a last-minute postponement and one -- the one they didn't show anybody -- for an explosion. Later, the appropriate version would be updated with actual facts.

Milling around, too excited to sit still, were other reporters, or pseudo-reporters -- space buffs with dubious credentials from college papers or tiny newsletters or public access cable TV stations. They spouted space trivia the way sports fans rattle off statistics about the 1927 Yankees. One middle-aged guy confessed in a whisper that he was a lawyer, not a reporter, for the radio outfit whose credentials he wore. He said the shuttle represented "the apotheosis of the whole culture," and spoke with awe about how it emitted an "inner glow like the Pieta."

At T minus eight minutes, I wandered outside to stake out a spot on the lawn in front of the press grandstand. Out past the huge digital countdown clock and a fetid little lake, Columbia stood three miles away, its nose aimed toward the brilliant blue heavens. Twice in the last few months, technical glitches had postponed the flight, but on this day, March 22, the countdown proceeded with no problems. I'd never seen a launch before and I was surprised at how nervous I was. Would I witness a magnificent ascent or a horrible explosion? Adrenaline-fueled butterflies fluttered in my gut.

"Two minutes and 10 seconds from launch," said Mitch Varnes, the NASA commentator, whose voice bellowed out of the grandstand loudspeakers like a ballpark announcer's. ". . . The astronauts have now closed their visors in preparation for launch. The replenishment of liquid hydrogen to the external tank is being terminated and Columbia is now disconnected from all ground systems . . ."

"I'm getting chills," said a college student who was standing next to me. Then she giggled nervously.

"When Columbia's engines ignite in 75 seconds, the roar of 37 million horsepower will begin," Varnes continued. "More than 7 million pounds of thrust will kick in six seconds after that. When the boosters ignite, Columbia begins its journey skyward . . ."

Everybody leaned anxiously forward, squinting toward the shuttle, which was shining in the sun.

"T minus 15, and we're coming up on a go for main engine start. Seven, six, five, four . . ."

A burst of bright orange flame leapt from Columbia's tail, producing a puff of white smoke as thick as whipped cream. The shuttle shuddered but failed to move.

"Abort! We have a main engine shutdown at T minus three seconds!"

There was a quick, involuntary gasp from the grandstand. The white smoke covered Columbia, shielding it completely from view. For a few seconds, nobody breathed. Then the smoke blew off. Columbia was still there, still in one piece. It hadn't flown, but it hadn't blown up either. It was a dud, like a bottle rocket that fizzled but never left the bottle.

". . . The engines are safe," Varnes said, his voice calmer now. "And Columbia is being placed in a safe configuration . . ."

The big countdown clock stood frozen at 00:00:03. Slowly, the spectators shuffled inside, where TVs showed the astronauts climbing out of the shuttle. The problem was a faulty valve in Main Engine 3, NASA revealed. Computers caught it and automatically aborted the launch.

"The system worked," Dick Young, a NASA spokesman, told a group of reporters.

When he walked away, one wag muttered: "You don't have to be in Washington to hear a spin doctor."

I wandered outside and stared at Columbia, which towered over the flat Florida plains like a magnificent statue or maybe a metaphor for NASA's current predicament: In the past, it had soared to the heavens; now, it couldn't quite get off the ground.

Rough Times for the Right Stuff

It's been a tough year for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In 1993, shuttle launches have been postponed by ruptured hoses, broken valves, faulty sensors and even missing paperwork. The main antenna of the spacecraft Galileo was stuck shut as it sped toward Jupiter. A General Accounting Office report lambasted the agency for routinely fudging its cost estimates. NASA sheepishly admitted massive cost overruns -- perhaps as much as a billion dollars' worth -- on its still-unbuilt Space Station Freedom. The Justice Department investigated the possibility of fraud in the production of the flawed Hubble space telescope. The new administration informed NASA that its annual budget -- which had doubled to $14 billion in the past decade -- would not continue to soar. And the White House also ordered the agency to scale back and redesign the space station by June 7 -- the fourth major redesign since the project was proposed by President Reagan in 1984.

Worse, in a weird way, was the press release from Hollywood: "NASA and a consortium of corporations sponsoring the first commercial space mission in U.S. history have chosen Columbia Pictures and its action-adventure fantasy film 'Last Action Hero,' starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, to be the first advertiser in space." It was, alas, true. Columbia had paid $500,000 for the right to plaster the words "Last Action Hero" and "Schwarzenegger" on the fuselage of a Conestoga rocket scheduled to be launched in late June, part of NASA's COMET -- Commercial Experiment Transporter -- program.

Needless to say, Jay Leno had a field day with that one.

On Capitol Hill, the space subcommittees repeatedly summoned NASA officials into hearings and belted them with vicious sound bites: "A budget that's clearly running out of control!" "A bureaucracy concerned with its own self-perpetuation!" "Taxpayer dollars are being flushed into a dark hole in space!"

Off the Hill, some critics were even harsher: "NASA stands for 'Not a Serious Agency,' " said novelist Tom Clancy, who served on a White House space policy panel during the Bush administration. "It's HUD in space."

Even NASA's own administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, wondered aloud in a public speech "whether NASA can reestablish its 'can-do' reputation and relevancy with the American people, or whether we just continue to drift toward the fringe of national priorities and become a white-collar jobs program."

In the spring of 1993, NASA somehow seemed like an old home-run king who's past his prime, going flabby in the gut and creaky in the legs, on and off the disabled list, hitting .220, and yet still capable, at some dramatic moment, of launching one, sending it into orbit, thrilling the crowd, bringing back memories of the magnificence of his youth.

And how magnificent NASA was in its youth! It was the home of the Right Stuff, the agency that performed feats out of science fiction. It launched Mariner 10 past Mercury and Venus. It landed Viking 2 on the surface of Mars. It shot Voyager 2 more than 2 billion miles into space, past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, sending back stunning color pictures of previously unseen worlds. It sent Pioneer 10 right out of the solar system and into interstellar space. And, of course, it put men on the moon and brought them safely home. Six times.

NASA is the only civilian agency of the federal government that has attained the status of legend, the only one that has inspired ticker tape parades. NASA made the astronaut and the shuttle symbols of America, like the cowboy and the Statue of Liberty. Even now, when NASA has become a punching bag for politicians and a punch line for comedians, more than 8 million people swarm into the National Air and Space Museum every year while tens of thousands attend space camps and crowd Florida highways to watch shuttle launches.

The space program is an odd mixture of myth and reality, nostalgia and futurism, idealism and cynicism, adventure and bureaucracy, and I was curious to take a closer look. Of course, I wasn't alone. For years, NASA has been studied by countless panels and task forces and committees and commissions that have issued reports with titles like "Leadership and the Future in Space" and "Toward a New Era in Space." But I was interested in something different. I wanted to get the feel of the space program, to see if the magic was still there, to plot the border between the legend and the reality. And to find out how we'd gone from the First Man on the Moon to the Last Action Hero.

Hot Cars and Heroes

Lloyce Campbell took out a towel and wiped the blue Corvette until it shone. Then she wiped it again. And again. She was doing it for John Glenn.

A few feet away, Jim Falkowski wiped a red Corvette that had once belonged to the late Gus Grissom, America's second man in space. "To me, it has a lot of personal significance," he said. "Consider the quality of the man who drove the car."

They were standing in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church in Cocoa Beach, Fla., beneath a sign that read "Welcome Home, Mercury and Gemini Astronauts," getting the vintage 'Vettes ready to carry 17 of America's original astronauts in a parade down the main drag of Cocoa Beach. The occasion was the induction, later that day, of 13 Gemini astronauts into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in nearby Titusville. The Corvettes were appropriate historical artifacts. Back in the early '60s, a local Chevy dealer gave the original astronauts Corvettes, and they used to roar around town, letting off steam after a tough day of training.

Lloyce Campbell wiped the blue 'Vette down one last time and then spread some laminated front pages of the old Cocoa Tribune across the hood. "SHEP DID IT," said one huge headline from 1961, when Alan Shepard made America's first space flight. "GLENN MAKES IT," said one from a year later.

"The kids love to see these old newspapers," Campbell said. She's 43, a history teacher in a nearby high school.

Are the kids interested in today's space program? I asked.

"I don't think so," she said. "They'd rather see one of the pop stars."

"People have kind of forgotten about the astronauts," Falkowski added. "They're thinking of Michael Jordan and Axl Rose and they've forgotten about this."

It had been raining for most of the morning, but now the sun was burning through the clouds and people were coming out for the parade. One of them was Bett Kelso, a red- headed woman wearing bright pink lipstick and crimson heart-shaped earrings. She's 60, which means, she said, that she has another 80 years to go: "I'm gonna be shot by a jealous 30-year-old wife," she said, laughing. She remembered Cocoa Beach back in the early '60s, when it was a funky boom town of only a couple thousand people. Space was exciting then, she said, but not anymore. "The excitement started wearing down in the mid-'60s," she said. "Before that, it was a seat-of-the- pants thing. They did it as an adventure rather than as a job. But the adventure's gone out of it."

Back in the old days, you'd meet the astronauts when they went drinking in the Holiday Inn or the old Samoa, she said. She smiled when she talked about Alan Shepard and Wally Schirra. "They were alive!" she said. "They had that inner spirit."

A couple minutes later, they arrived -- Shepard, Schirra, Glenn, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, Buzz Aldrin and the rest. They're men on the verge of old age now, guys with gray hair or thin hair or no hair at all, guys in sweaters and sport jackets and tasseled shoes. They perched in the Corvettes and signed autographs and posed for pictures.

Most of the autograph hounds were as old as the astronauts. One guy sat in a metal chair on wheels, his nose hooked by hoses to a silver bottle of oxygen, a cap that said "Gemini Celebration" perched on his head.

Off to the side stood Jose Gilbert, a 12-year-old who lived nearby. "I just wanted to see them," he said. "I thought it would be pretty good to see what they looked like."

What about the shuttle launch on Monday? I asked him. Are you excited about that?

He looked perplexed. "No," he said. "I don't think so."

The Myth and the History

"Some countries build cathedrals," said John Pike. "We have a space program."

Pike is the director of the space policy project at the Federation of American Scientists. It's a classic Washington wonk job: He spends his workdays reading technical reports, testifying before congressional committees and talking to reporters. "I answer the phone, people ask me questions and I answer them," he said with a wry smile on his bearded face.

He wasn't kidding. Pike is legendary in space circles for his ability to rattle off perfectly phrased sound bites at a moment's notice, and I soon learned why. He greeted me, then sat down, put his feet on his desk and kept them there for three solid hours, while he sipped water, smoked several Camels, answered the phone and spouted sound bites on various topics, including predictions on NASA personnel matters that later proved true. It was pretty impressive.

I'd read Pike's Senate testimony on the space station and I had come to ask him technical questions. But we were soon sidetracked into a discussion of myth.

"The fundamental thing that the civil space program has done all along is embody and express core national values and aspirations," he said. "The presumption of the American republic is that we're pioneers, that we explore frontiers, that we use technology in that pursuit, that we are a country with a special sense of our place in history. And, in various guises, I think that's mainly what NASA's been about. It's mainly about making us feel good about being Americans."

He said it very matter-of-factly but I found it stunning. "Is that a worthy goal for all this money?"

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah." All countries need "institutions that embody the national myth," and NASA is ours: "The Brits have the monarchy and Westminster Abbey and we've got the space program and the Air and Space Museum."

"So it's like a religion?"

"Yeah," he said. "It's a secular religion, in the same sense that the flag and the Fourth of July are part of our secular religion."

"Where does scientific research fit into this?" I asked.

"Icing on the cake," he said, still wearing that same wry smile. "We've certainly learned some very interesting and important things, but most of the resonance of the program with the public has to do with the fact that it's humans going into the heavens, rather than finding out more about the Earth's magnetosphere."

Is that true? Is NASA primarily a big national feel-good program? I ran Pike's ideas past another oft-quoted space expert: John Logsdon, a white-haired political science professor and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

"John's doing a series of sound bites, huh?" Logsdon said with a laugh.

But then he acknowledged that he agreed with Pike. "NASA is an instrument of national policy and propaganda that projects to the world and back to ourselves the image of the United States as a pioneering, technologically advanced, risk-taking, high-achievement society. That's clearly what Apollo was all about."

He got up from his chair, opened a file cabinet and took out a folder full of space-related documents. He picked up a memo from President Kennedy to Vice President Johnson, dated April 20, 1961, and he started reading from it: "Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon or by a rocket to land on the moon . . . ? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results, which we could win?" He picked up another memo -- this one from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and NASA head Jim Webb to Kennedy two weeks later -- and read from that: "It is vital to establish specific missions aimed mainly at national prestige."

Two weeks later, Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and announced a new goal for the infant space program: "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Thus, Apollo was born. It was conceived, Logsdon said, in reaction to Kennedy's political problems -- the Bay of Pigs, Laos, Soviet successes in space -- not as a scientific endeavor. "Science had nothing to do with it."

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, fulfilling Kennedy's goal, Richard Nixon was president. "This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation," Nixon said. Before long, though, he was cutting back on the space program.

"His calculus," said Logsdon, "was that there were no benefits to him as president that could match the ones he had already gotten for being president when Apollo happened."

So Nixon nixed the idea of a mission to Mars and instead opted for a program to build cheap, safe, reusable vehicles to carry men and machines into a low Earth orbit -- in other words, the space shuttle. It would, Nixon said, "take the astronomical cost out of astronautics." But the shuttle program has cost more than $80 billion since then, and it has never quite worked as planned. Instead of 60 flights a year -- the original estimate -- it has flown only 55 flights in its 12-year history. The shuttle is undoubtedly a technical marvel -- the only vehicle that can cart thousands of pounds into orbit and bring it back -- but the four-shuttle fleet now requires a permanent army of 30,000 workers to keep flying its schedule of eight missions per year.

And, of course, there was the horrific 1986 Challenger disaster.

NASA spent the '70s developing the shuttle and then, in the early '80s, advanced a new program: the space station. Why that project at that time? "Because NASA was done building shuttles," Logsdon said. "NASA is an organization that is set up to develop big new hardware systems. Either you found something else to do or you shut down portions of the organization. And every institution tries to maintain itself."

"So it was a big WPA project?" I asked him.

"Yes."

"That was its primary goal?"

"That was its primary reality."

Logsdon had laid out a pretty bleak, even cynical, history of NASA. Which seemed strange. After all, he's a man with a huge poster of a footprint on the moon hanging on his office wall, a poster autographed by the man who put the footprint there: "To Space Policy Institute, best wishes, Buzz Aldrin." And Logsdon serves on the board of Aldrin's National Space Society, which he calls "a citizen's advocacy group for space."

"Does that mean you're an advocate for the space program?"

"Yeah," he conceded. "I'm not a Trekkie. I've never read science fiction. I don't want to go into space. But I think it's a neat thing. It's exciting."

Then he smiled and played the space proponent's ultimate trump card: "You tell me, when you come back from the shuttle launch, if it was or was not an exciting thing."

Unhappy Heroes

In the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the displays included a moon rock and a piece of the Atlas rocket that launched John Glenn into orbit and Pete Conrad's Apollo 12 flight suit and Alan Shepard's Apollo 14 toothbrush and Buzz Aldrin's ninth-grade report card and Jim Lovell's Boy Scout Handbook.

In the Hall of Fame souvenir shop, there were six-inch rubber astronauts for $1.99 and photos of rocket launches for $2.75 and teddy bears dressed in spacesuits for $9 and NASA jumpsuits for $70.

And in the hall's auditorium, the Gemini astronauts, fresh from their parade through Cocoa Beach, sat behind a long table for a group press conference. The first question was: "Do you perceive that it's less fun nowadays to be in the space program?"

John Young, the only Gemini veteran still at NASA -- he's a special assistant to the director of the Johnson Space Center -- answered the question the way Shepard used to answer back in the old days: in the voice of Jose Jimenez. "Being an astronaut," he said, "eez steel fun." His old buddies roared with laughter.

But that was about it for laughs. It soon became obvious that the Gemini brethren were not thrilled with the current space program.

"We're about 35 years behind where we're supposed to be," said Pete Conrad.

"I think we somehow have abandoned the cause," said Eugene Cernan. "We somehow seem unwilling to take that risk and be accountable as we did 20 or 25 years ago."

"NASA has to show its credibility," said Tom Stafford. "I'm talking about the leadership of NASA."

"I don't really think we've had effective political leadership for the American space program since Apollo," said Frank Borman. "We had a dichotomy in our society in the '60s. Those of us who are here today were involved in a great nationalistic effort to beat the Russians in the space business. Half the other people in the society were throwing rocks and bombs and dodging the draft. They're running the country now."

"I just hope we get a space station up," said Conrad, "but personally I don't hold a lot of hope."

Amid all this gloom, a reporter rose to ask a question of Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon nearly a quarter of a century ago. "What benefits should we point out to Americans, especially Americans too young to remember that? What have been the benefits of the fact that you and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon?"

Aldrin pondered the question for a long moment. "In tangible benefits -- I think too many people are looking at, 'What's in it for me?' What I think has been in it for them is the number of people that, as I go around, they come up to me and they feel compelled to want to tell me where they were back when we went to the moon. To me, that's not because of something that happened there on the moon. It's because something happened to that person that made their life significant around that point. I think we tend to want to look for, 'What's the goody in this? What am I going to get out of the moon rocks?' It's the lifting of the spirit. It's the fact that we regret that we're not doing today what we did then. That's what we got out of Apollo."

Back to the Moon and On to Mars

"When we talk about return to the moon, we're really talking about settling the moon," said Michael Griffin. "When we talk about voyages to Mars, we're talking about one day settling Mars with permanent human activity."

Griffin was sitting in his NASA office, sipping coffee out of his NASA mug. He wore the requisite dark pin-striped suit and the plastic ID badge of a government bureaucrat, but he spoke with a boyish enthusiasm about activities usually associated with science fiction. Which was part of his job. As NASA's associate administrator for exploration, he was the agency's head visionary. In 1989, President Bush vowed that America would establish a base on the moon and then put a man on Mars by 2019, the 50th anniversary of the first moon walk. Now, Griffin was the man in charge of planning the trips.

"Our initial plans are for what we'd call a man-tended outpost" on the moon, he said. "By that I mean, people can visit for up to 45 days at a time, approximately 15 times the length of the stay allowable in the Apollo era."

Gradually, the outpost would grow into a permanent self-supporting base, complete with farms and mines and labs and nuclear power plants. Of course, he admitted, that would take a while. "Much of the focus of your early activity is just on being there and surviving," he said. "One doubts that the Pilgrims, in their first winter, were giving much thought to the founding of Yale University."

One of the purposes of the moon project is to develop the technology necessary for the trip to Mars. "Going to the moon is not hard anymore," he said. "Going to Mars is hard."

Mars is 35 million miles away. It would take more than four months to get there. The planet is cold and dry. It makes Antarctica look inviting by comparison. And, of course, the dangers are infinite. "If the wrong thing breaks at the wrong time," he said, "no one will come home."

Still, Griffin spoke of the trip enthusiastically. He compared it to the exploration of the Americas and the voyages of Magellan and Cook. He drew parallels with Lewis and Clark and the building of the transcontinental railroad.

"It's the next step outward in the expansion of the human species off the Earth," he said. "And that is something that must come. It will benefit the people back on Earth in tremendous and numerous ways."

"Like what?" I asked.

"When we learn to develop and exploit the resources of the solar system," he said, "we're going to be developing new technologies -- advanced robotic systems, advanced health care systems . . . technologies for the mining and extraction of materials on the moon . . . safe nuclear power systems for use on the moon . . . science that cannot be done on Earth . . .

"I think those things are valuable," he said. "I think they're worth what we pay for them."

What we pay for NASA, he said, is 17 cents per American per day. For only a quarter per American per day, we could get the moon and Mars program in all its glory.

"I can't even dignify it by calling it pocket change," he said. "It's less than pocket change."

Griffin was pretty convincing. At least to me. I left ready to pony up my quarter a day. Apparently, other people were not so moved. Ten days later, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin announced that he was closing the Office of Exploration and transferring Griffin to a job as chief engineer.

"Technically speaking, we are not yet ready to return to the moon or go to Mars," Goldin later explained in a speech. "We haven't established that humans can live and work in these extremely hostile environments for long periods of time. We haven't established that we could do this program for $50 billion instead of $500 billion. We haven't done the precursor robotic scouting missions that are necessary. We don't have a heavy lift launch vehicle in the pipeline. So we need to get our house in order before pushing on . . ."

America's Most Famous Toilet

"So here we are, Mr. Chairman, looking down the drain of NASA's snazzy new space shuttle toilet," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). "If you look closely down there, you see the hefty sum of 23 million four hundred thousand dollars!"

Fortunately, neither Sensenbrenner nor the chairman was literally looking into a toilet. Actually, they were sitting in the hearing room of the House subcommittee on space -- surrounded by color photos of a shuttle launch and a space-walking astronaut -- and they were verbally mugging a panel of NASA bureaucrats.

Hearings are a common aspect of life for NASA, at least as common as shuttle launches. In fact, they've become a familiar ritual: An irate congressional committee, outraged at some horrendous cost overrun, summons NASA honchos in to be raked over the coals while TV cameras churn. In this case, it was a cost overrun on a new, improved toilet for the space shuttle. NASA contracted for Rockwell International and Hamilton Standard to produce two commodes for $8.3 million and then, 2 1/2 years later, the agency got one commode for $23.4 million. Much publicity ensued and the commode became America's most famous toilet. And now Sensenbrenner, his face red and his voice raised, was going at full oratorical throttle:

". . . The insularity, incompetence and arrogance that's showing up today in NASA . . . a NASA that can't shoot straight with Congress and the public . . . It can't seem to pay for a toilet for the astronauts without displaying some kind of horrendous neglect . . ."

Which was not unusual, Sensenbrenner pointed out. He cited a GAO study of 29 major NASA programs, which revealed that 25 exceeded their original cost estimates, that 21 rose by at least 50 percent, that 10 doubled in cost.

"Why is the system of making things for humanity's greatest space program," he asked, "so tolerant of mediocre performance and flat-out lousy management?"

That was a rhetorical question. The NASA panel wasn't supposed to actually answer it. First, the other committee members would get their chance to make opening remarks. Which they did, flogging the panel with angry rhetoric, much of it containing unfortunate attempts at toilet-related humor.

". . . We cannot be asking the American people in this country to be tightening their belts and having NASA dropping its pants on a $23 million toilet seat," said Tim Roemer (D-Ind.).

". . . This is a high-priced potty," said Harold Volkmer (D-Mo).

"We're not just looking at a space toilet today," said Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). "This is about whether or not the management of the space program is adequate or not . . ."

"The credibility of the entire space program is at stake," said Dick Zimmer (R-N.J.).

"It's absolutely crystal clear," said Martin Hoke (R-Ohio), "that when we have to go back and talk about defending a gold-plated toilet that cost about five times more than it was supposed to on a per unit basis, it's awfully difficult to come off without egg on your face."

This verbal horsewhipping went on for nearly an hour, while a panel of five NASA honchos in dark suits sat at the witness table, silent and stoic. This ritual is, apparently, how NASA desk jockeys prove that they have the bureaucratic equivalent of the Right Stuff. They show it by remaining utterly unemotional while being bludgeoned by TV-frenzied pols, and then -- after being duly sworn in -- by droning on with prepared statements that are so long, so convoluted, so jargon-studded, so stupefyingly dull that the committee is bored into submission.

Jeremiah W. Pearson III, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, went first. "Thank you for the opportunity to come before you today to discuss NASA's management of the Space Shuttle Improved Waste Collection System in the context of NASA program management and procurement practices in general . . ."

Then came Daniel F. Germany, a manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center: ". . . Primary reasons for the cost overruns were the significantly underestimated task complexity by Hamilton Standard and significantly underestimated vendor/subcontractor cost for hardware components . . ."

Then Leonard Nicholson, NASA's shuttle program manager: ". . . All of these agreements and commitments are then reviewed and confirmed at the preliminary design review and then again at the critical design review . . ."

Then Deidre A. Lee, NASA's acting associate administrator for procurement: ". . . In the area of program management, the agency has developed an infrastructure to strengthen the program and process management. This is going to include a program management council, chaired by a deputy administrator and consisting of other key managers . . ."

By this time, it felt as if all the air in the crowded hearing room had been sucked out and replaced by carbon monoxide. Rep. Volkmer had laid his head atop his folded arms on the desk in front of him and appeared to be dozing. But several other members of the subcommittee managed to stay awake. Some even tried to pry real answers out of the panel.

"Somebody at NASA wasn't doing their job," said Rohrabacher.

"Well," said Germany, "we at NASA -- this is a team effort . . ."

"Maybe you could tell me what member of the team was it that screwed up?"

"Well, let me say it this way," said Germany. "The team put the requirements down and I'm the chairman of the team." "So you're accountable for it!" Rohrabacher said. "Have you docked yourself some pay?"

"Ah, no sir."

"Has there been any pay docked from any member of this team because of this screw-up?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

"Did anyone at NASA lose their job?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"Did anyone get an official reprimand? Is there something in somebody's record that says, 'This person screwed up royally and cost taxpayers several million dollars?' "

"Ah, no sir."

And on and on it went.

A week later, the committee held another hearing, this one on the cost overruns on the Space Station Freedom -- cost overruns approaching a billion dollars.

Redesigning Freedom

The phone rang. A young woman picked it up. "Good morning," she said. "Space station."

She was not in the space station, of course. The space station doesn't exist yet, although NASA has already spent $8 billion on the planning phase of what was originally supposed to be an $8 billion project. She was sitting in NASA's headquarters, outside the office of Marty Kress, who is deputy director of the space station. Kress, a former staffer on the Senate space subcommittee, was the man deputized to explain Space Station Freedom to me. He wore a bulky green sweater and corduroy pants, and he never stopped moving, flicking imaginary dust specks off his red desktop and doodling rectangles inside other rectangles on a yellow legal pad.

"Why do we want to have a space station?" I asked.

"Believe it or not, I still think that's the key question," he said. "I've always personally felt -- and I have three little kids -- that to me it has as much symbolic value as it does practical value. It was kind of the bridge to the next century. It was a way of the United States telling the world that we were committed to maintaining our leadership in high technology. So I always felt its primary purpose was to be a space-based research center that would push the edge of technology."

Various space station plans have blossomed on NASA drawing boards for decades, but the project finally got off the ground -- metaphorically if not literally -- when Jim Beggs, then the agency's administrator, sold the idea to Ronald Reagan in 1983. "He and Reagan agreed on the concept -- almost like Kennedy and Apollo, over the objections of most of the key advisers -- and the next thing you know, there was a space station program in the {1984} State of the Union address," Kress said. "At that point in time, it was advertised as $8 billion off the shelf. But people have to realize that at that time, there wasn't one drawing, one study. It was the marketing of a concept."

It was, originally, an audacious concept. Freedom would be a permanently manned station with several laboratories, a satellite-repair facility, observation stations, a storage depot, a facility for manufacturing medicines, a transportation depot and a staging base for missions to the moon and Mars. Gradually, though, as the predicted price tag grew -- to $38 billion, the GAO estimated in 1991 -- the station was redesigned and re-redesigned, getting ever smaller.

"We change it every two or three years," Kress said. "Either the change of administration does it, or the change of committee chairmen on the Hill does it, or the change in the focus of the Congress does it, or the agency does it to itself. And you sit there and you go, 'Wait a minute!' "

In 1991, Freedom was nearly killed, when a House appropriations subcommittee refused to fund it. That sparked a battle in Congress. Among those lobbying against the station was a consortium of 14 scientific groups -- including the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society and the American Mathematical Society -- which warned that the "excessive cost" of the station "threatens the vitality" of other scientific research projects.

But NASA had a weapon stronger than science. It sent every congressional office a map of the United States, showing the locations of businesses with a station-related contract. There were more than 100 of them, scattered in 29 states. The map was labeled "BUSINESSES GETTING BUCK$."

Not surprisingly, Congress voted to fund the program. But it also demanded that the station be redesigned and, of course, made smaller.

Then, this past January, as the new administration was settling in, NASA revealed that the station was facing potential cost overruns of somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion. "This one caught us totally off guard, I'm not going to kid you," Kress said. "We didn't manage the prime contractors as well as we should have and they didn't manage the subcontractors as well as they should have."

Cost overruns are regrettable but inevitable, Kress said. The Pentagon and other government agencies that purchase huge, complex systems have the same problems. "I'd like to tell you I have the answer to cost overruns," he said, "but I don't think anybody in the agency does."

In February, President Clinton ordered NASA to redesign and scale down the station yet again, and Administrator Goldin promised to produce "a streamlined, cost-effective design," which is now scheduled to be unveiled on June 7.

"Everybody is always sitting there ready to amend or change," Kress said, sounding a little peeved at the whole process. "My view is it's about damn time people built something."

A Standing O for the Big Bang

The white-smocked scientist melted into a hideous puddle atop his desk, right next to his microscope, as his colleagues stared in horror.

"My God, it's Professor Dickle," said their boss. "Weinberg, see what the devil he was working on, and the rest of you get back to your stations."

It was a "Far Side" cartoon, one of many "Far Side" cartoons taped in the hallways of Building 21 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. It's a building full of scientists who study astronomy, atmospheric chemistry, solar physics, infrared astrophysics and other issues generally overshadowed by NASA's more spectacular successes and failures.

I was wandering the halls of Building 21, killing time between appointments, perusing the stuff on the walls. On the bulletin boards were notices about a workshop on "Mass Supply and Flows in the Solar Corona," a symposium on "The Infrared Cirrus and Diffuse Interstellar Cloud" and a colloquium on "Particle Acceleration Phenomena in Astrophysical Plasmas."

There were photos of impact craters on Venus, which looked like lakes of fire, and there was a list of new books in the Goddard Library, which included Gas Chromatography and A Catalogue of Quasars and Active Nuclei.

On one wall was a newspaper story about NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer -- or COBE -- project. It caught my eye because I was on my way to interview COBE's head scientist, John Mather. The headline read: "EXCLUSIVE PHOTO OF HEAVEN." The text was even better: "Scientists claim to have found heaven at the center of the Milky Way galaxy and they have the photograph to prove it!" The photograph showed a horizontal line with a light glowing in the middle, a light that the paper identified as "an enormous celestial city that may be inhabited by God and the souls of the dead."

"It might be Heaven but I couldn't identify it as such," Mather said with a laugh when I asked him about the story, which appeared in one of the more imaginative supermarket tabloids. A tall, thin, soft-spoken scientist, he keeps a thermos of skim milk on his desk to get him through the long afternoons. That picture in the newspaper, he said, actually was made by the COBE satellite, but what it really showed was "the center of our galaxy as seen in infrared."

And it wasn't just in tabloids that COBE won extravagant praise. Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, called its results "the discovery of the century, if not of all time."

What the COBE satellite did was measure the cosmic background radiation produced by the gigantic Big Bang explosion that scientists believe created the universe 15 billion years ago. Scientists had developed theoretical models of the radiation, but it was impossible to measure it accurately from within the Earth's atmosphere. But COBE, orbiting 559 miles above the Earth, was able to measure the radiation so accurately that it could have either disproved or strongly corroborated the Big Bang theory.

In January of 1990, Mather presented his findings to a convention of the American Astronomical Society. When he put up a graph of COBE's measurements -- a graph that looked like a silhouette of a ski slope -- the assembled scientists immediately recognized that the figures matched the theory.

"When we showed a curve where all the data points lay exactly on the predicted line, people could see that we had done something really important and significant," Mather said. "And it was a great relief -- to them and to me."

How did the astrophysicists express that relief? In the traditional American way: They rose to their feet and applauded.

A standing O for the Big Bang! A standing O for John Mather!

For a NASA scientist, it was the professional equivalent of John Glenn's ticker tape parade through New York. For NASA, it was the biggest triumph of the '90s. COBE -- which cost only $400 million over 15 years -- won much media praise and many scientific awards.

"It's an example of something NASA's done right," said GWU's John Logsdon.

"There's a general perception," agreed John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, "that COBE is the kind of science you ought to be doing in space."

To Mather, COBE is just one example of the cutting-edge science that NASA's unmanned space program has been producing for years without much fanfare. The agency spends nearly a fifth of its budget on science -- not just space science projects like COBE but Earth science projects like the NIMBUS satellite, which has been monitoring the Earth's ozone layer since 1978, long before ozone became a hot issue.

"We have a large number of truly brilliant projects," Mather said. "We are trying to do stuff that's never been done by any human being before. We take stuff that was impossible and we make it happen."

Like many of NASA's scientists, Mather is skeptical of the agency's conventional wisdom that the American public just doesn't get excited about unmanned missions. "COBE generated lots of enthusiasm," he said. "You don't have to send a human being to die or to risk death to have a real adventure. People are so excited when we fly by Mars or Venus or Jupiter. They're glued to their television sets watching the satellite pictures come by. I don't think we should send a human being until we really push to see what can be done without one."

Cheaper, Faster, Better

Daniel Goldin, the head of NASA, slid a piece of notebook paper across the polished conference room table. He wanted me to take a test.

"You have a factory that builds metal coat hangers," he said in his South Bronx accent. "The market just dropped out of the black coat hanger business and we have millions of black coat hangers. You've got three minutes. Tell me what you're going to do with black coat hangers."

"Who, me?" I asked.

"You, yeah. Trust me. Just sit and write."

So I did. Goldin timed me. "Okay," he said after three minutes, "what have you got?"

Bird cages, bicycle spokes, mobiles, pipe cleaners . . .

He was not impressed. "You were looking for the good idea," he said. "And you prejudged it." Instead, I should have been more "childlike," less "linear," open to any idea, even silly ones. In short, more creative.

"I gave this test to the folks on the space station redesign," he said. "I felt they were becoming a little constrained in their thinking -- they knew what couldn't be done."

That's changed now, he said. The redesign team is doing great work, planning a new station that will be what Goldin keeps saying he wants all NASA projects to be: "cheaper, faster, better."

He's 52, with curly graying hair and round, wire-rimmed glasses. He became NASA's administrator in April of 1992. It was a homecoming of sorts: He'd started his career at NASA in 1962, working as a propulsion engineer. "NASA was the only place I wanted to work," he says. Five years later, though, he quit, fed up with the agency's dense bureaucracy -- "NASA got hardening of the arteries" -- and he went to TRW, where he remained for 25 years, until George Bush appointed him to head NASA.

Even now, after 14 months at the helm, he remains one of NASA's harshest critics:

"NASA had no clear statement of vision."

"NASA had grown comfortable with big programs that lasted decades and our once-proud science program had been reduced to a few gargantuan spacecraft."

"NASA was so paralyzed by fear of failure that it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: They wouldn't do anything."

"We existed as part of America's anti-Soviet campaign, to show the world we could lob bigger things into space, with the implication about weapons. That was the reason NASA existed. And as a result, it never had to justify its budget, it didn't need a vision. And after we went to the moon, we lost the bubble and then we became a big jobs program -- I'm exaggerating a little bit to make a point."

Needless to say, such sentiments did not endear Goldin to all of his employees. "He sent a message that excited a lot of NASA employees and insulted the top management of the place because he's a threat to the status quo," said John Logsdon. "So there's been a raging war for the soul of NASA."

It's a war that Goldin intends to win. "We are looking at streamlining the management structure and some rice bowls are gonna break," he said. "We can't have it both ways. We can't have a NASA that is on the cutting edge, that's creative, that's frugal with money, that delivers things, that has accountability -- and the kind of system we have."

Goldin is delighted that NASA's annual budget will not rise to $23 billion by 1998, as planned under Bush, but will remain below $17 billion. "I think this is the most wonderful thing that's happened to NASA," he said. "Government agencies have got to feel the pinch at the bottom line, and, although it's going to be painful, I'm excited about this. Because now people can't say, 'Well, I've always done it this way, why should I change?' Well, you better change."

And Goldin plans big changes at NASA. He wants a cheaper, less complicated space station that can get off the ground soon. He says he'll cut a billion dollars out of the shuttle's annual operating budget by 1998. Instead of a few big, complex, multipurpose scientific satellites, he wants to launch more smaller satellites. He wants to spend a larger percentage of NASA's budget on unmanned missions and a smaller percentage on manned flights. And he vows to prune NASA's overlapping bureaucracies and cut the massive cost overruns.

"We are reinventing NASA," he said, "and NASA is going to be returned to the American people, who are our customers, and it will not be owned by a few NASA employees and the contractors. That's what the issue's all about."

He jumped up from the table and ducked into another room. A minute later, he popped back in with a hat in his hand and a grin on his face. It was a baseball cap with "USA" above the bill and a button with the word "Whining" crossed out by a red slash. And there were two pairs of goofy plastic eyeballs pasted on the hat, one in front, one in back.

"The employees at Johnson {Space Center} gave me this hat," he said. "They put the eyes on it that said, 'We have to look back to learn from what we've done, but we really want to look forward, not backward.' " He smiled. "I promised them that I would take it to the Congress, and I showed it to the members of Congress yesterday."

Five, Four, Three, Two . . .

At T minus nine minutes, a woman working in the press dome closed her office door and hung a sign on it: "Out to Launch."

Then she walked outside to witness the great event. A minute later, I went out too. It was about 1:20 on the morning of April 8 -- a soft, warm, beautiful night. The shuttle Discovery glowed under a full moon out on launch pad 39B, filled with 4 million pounds of rocket fuel. Inside, five astronauts waited to blast off on an eight-day scientific mission to study the ozone layer.

"No problems at all with the countdown today," said Lisa Malone, NASA's launch commentator for this flight, her voice barking out of the tinny speakers on the press grandstand.

It was my third attempt to watch a shuttle launch. The first was aborted at T minus 3 seconds because of a faulty valve. The second was aborted at T minus 11 seconds because of a faulty sensor. Now, two days later, NASA was going to try again. I was eager to see a launch; for weeks, I'd heard dozens of lyrical descriptions of them.

"The sound vibrates the earth," said Bett Kelso, the redheaded woman I'd met at the astronauts' parade in Cocoa Beach. "I stand in my front yard and I feel the staccato -- it's like a machine gun staccato, except much more powerful."

"You feel it in your chest, in your bones," said Bill Nelson, a space buff covering the launch for a cable access station in Illinois.

"You see it and you feel it -- the intensity of the light and the sound and the smoke and the low-frequency noise," said John Logsdon.

Logsdon had that gaga look in his eyes when he described it, the same gaga look that everybody seemed to get. I asked him what caused so many people to get so moony.

"Probably the pure sensual, sexual energy of what's going on," he said.

Sexual? That's the same word novelist Kurt Vonnegut had used to describe the experience. "It's a big space {bleep}," Vonnegut wrote. "How would taxpayers feel if they found out they were buying orgasms for a few thousand freaks within a mile of the launch pad? And it's an extremely satisfactory orgasm. I mean, you are shaking and you do take leave of your senses."

As I said, I was eager to see this launch.

". . . T minus 10," said Lisa Malone. "Nine, eight, we have a 'go' for main engine start. Six, five, four, three, two, one, we have ignition, we have liftoff . . ."

Discovery rose slowly on a bright yellow column of fire. From the bleachers behind me came high-pitched squeals of delight, the sound of Shea Stadium when the Beatles stepped on stage.

For a moment, that was the only noise. Then came a low rumble, like silk ripping, like a roaring fire.

Discovery pushed upward into the black night, but the horizon below it was as bright as noon. It was an eerie effect, like that famous Magritte painting of a night street below a sunny sky.

The sound got louder and deeper, like the ultimate bass note, like distant thunder, like an ocean full of ice cracking, like the last creak of a mine timber before the cave-in, like nothing you've ever heard.

And that's just the sound of the sound. There's also the feel of the sound. It pulses out of the ground, up your leg bones and into your chest, like the vibration of the ultimate electric bass note, like a minor earthquake, like the rattle of windows when a jet goes by, like nothing you've ever felt.

And then the force of the blastoff hit me, pushing me backward, like one of those shoves to the chest that guys in bar fights give each other instead of punches when they don't really want to fight.

Discovery streaked higher into the sky, picking up speed. "One and a half minutes so far," said the voice from the speaker, "and Discovery's already burned more than two and a half million pounds of propellant and weighs less than half what it did at liftoff. Altitude now 15 miles, 12 miles from the launch pad. Discovery is traveling at 2,050 miles an hour."

It streaked higher and banked to the north, traveling up the East Coast. "Altitude is now 61 miles, 365 miles from the launch pad. Discovery is traveling at 9,800 miles per hour . . ." It looked like a Fourth of July rocket now, getting smaller and quieter, and finally, after seven thrilling minutes, it disappeared into space.

It was a sensual experience. It was sexual. The earth moved. My body trembled. I saw fireworks. And when it was over, the guy from the New York Times lit up a cigarette and everybody chattered about how it felt and how it compared with other launches.

Weeks earlier, defending the space program, John Logsdon had said: "You tell me, when you come back from the shuttle launch, if it was or was not an exciting thing."

It was better than exciting. It was magnificent. It was awesome. It was inspiring.

Now I understand that gaga look. It's not that the mere act of seeing the shuttle blasting off blinds you to the bloated bureaucracy and the cost overruns. It's not that witnessing a shuttle soaring heavenward makes you forget the pork barreling and the outrageous waste. It's just that the power and the glory of it, the great gutsy American audacity of the whole endeavor, make you want to forgive NASA's sins and give it one more chance. So if they can cut the waste and trim the fat, if they can really do it "cheaper, faster, better," then let them do it.

Light the fuse and let it fly.