If the controversial bonus system for top federal executives loses altitude over Capitol Hill and burns up in the atmospherics, it could be because of the space agency.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration gave 240 of its senior executives bonuses totaling $1,372,000. The awards amounted to 46 percent of the eligible slots NASA had for bonuses and, because some of those slots are unoccupied, they went to 56 percent of the eligible NASA people. Congress had mandated that no more than 50 percent of an agency's alloted executives could receive bonuses in any given year.

Included in the 240 bonuses were awards to the agency's inspector general and to six of nine members of the Panel Review Board appointed to oversee the NASA bonus awards. NASA insists it acted within the letter of the law, but some members of Congress and even some in the executive branch think NASA could have exercised a little more restraint in the first year of the bonus system.

"Let's put it this way, it certainly caught the attention of people on Capitol Hill," Alan K. Campbell, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said in an interview. "If I could turn the clock back, I might have put out some stronger guidance on the numbers . . . , say, 35 percent of the executives are eligible for bonuses the first year instead of 50 percent."

When Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act, it put in the bonus clause to improve the motivation of the 7,000 members of the federal government's Senior Executive Service. Each department and agency was authorized to give bonuses -- worth as much as 20 percent of an executive's salary -- to half its eligible executives.

That's what Congress said, one Capitol Hill source said, but that's not what Congress meant. The House Appropriations Committee was so upset by what it viewed as NASA's excessiveness that it passed a rider reducing the maximum allowable bonus from $12,000 to $2,000. One member told Director Campbell: "The median income in my district is $12,000. How am I going to explain to a constituent that I gave a federal executive earning $50,000 a year a bonus that's as much as he makes in a year?"

"The idea of bonuses in the federal sector was still so revolutionary," Campbell said, "that everybody got real uptight about them when they were actually handed out."

And hand them out is what NASA did. The agency awarded itself more than 40 percent of the bonuses handed out so far by 15 federal departments and agencies, a group that includes the State, Interior and Treasury departments.

Another thing that irritated House members is that the awards went to numerous executives in charge of various aspects of the space shuttle, now more than two years late in getting off the ground and more than $4 billion over budget. Editorials were written questioning the wisdom of this. Letters littered the halls of Congress demanding explanations.

In its defense, NASA points out that all it did was follow congressional direction. Congress intended the bonus as a means of motivation and that's the way NASA said it applied the bonus.

"Motivation, that's what we felt was the real point in all this," Robert F. Allnut, associate deputy administrator, said in an interview. "And that's how we're using it."

As for giving bonuses to managers of the space shuttle, Allnut asks what he feels is a rhetorical questions: "Let's suppose we said, 'Let's not give any bonuses to shuttle people because we're having so much trouble with the shuttle.' The strength of this agency is in devising ways of getting out of trouble. Do you say to the guys working on these problems, 'Hey, if you want a bonus don't go to work on the difficult things at this agency?'"

The House rider reducing the maximum bonus to $2,000 went not long ago to conference, where the Senate fought to retain the $12,000 maximum on grounds that $2,000 is almost no bonus at all. The outcome? The $12,000 maximum bonus was kept but the number of executives eligible was cut to 25 percent.

"As you probably have learned," Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) wrote Campbell the next day, "the whole Senior Executive Service concept almost went 'down the tubes' last night. The House conferees were furious."

Some of them are still furious. But in spite of their fury, Campbell believes the bonus system can survive. Said Campbell: "The next two years are crucial. If we get through this next lameduck session without further fights and if there's a pay raise ahead for members of Congress [who are not eligible for any bonus], then I think the bonus system will make it."