The head of the space agency criticized the Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a plan to launch some satellites aboard surplus missiles rather than using the space shuttle, and said it will cost NASA $500 million.
"I don't want to suggest that anything dark is going on here, but some people think this whole affair may be a heavy-handed scheme by the Air Force to give the shuttle a black eye," said NASA Administrator James M. Beggs.
"You know, the old syndrome that if it wasn't invented here at the Air Force it can't be all that good."
"I don't like it," Beggs told The Washington Post. "It is not good for our short-term future and makes it that much more difficult for us NASA to get on an even footing in the next five years."
At the heart of the feud is an Air Force decision to refurbish and redevelop obsolete Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch up to 12 Air Force satellites and three NOAA satellites that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had assumed would be flying on its shuttle.
Beggs said he had long assumed that NOAA and the Air Force were committed to use the shuttle although no formal agreement had been signed. "I'm not worried about the long-term effects of this decision because there's a limit on the number of Titan IIs they have to move in on our business," he said. "What bothers me is that they decided to move in on us in the first place. It doesn't help NASA any."
When NOAA heard about the Air Force decision, its acting administrator, Anthony J. Calio, a former NASA official, contacted the Air Force about launching three advanced weather satellites called Metsat (for Meteorological Satellite) into polar orbit over the next seven years. "The Air Force has offered me a deal that's going to save me $90 million, and I'm going to take it," Calio said in an interview. "This agency has a budget of $1 billion a year so we're talking about 10 percent of our annual budget. This is strictly a business deal and nothing more than that."
Calio said the agency would have to spend $100 million to redesign the Metsats to fly on the shuttle, plus $105 million in launch fees. Calio said the Air Force will charge NOAA $115 million for the three Titan II launches, a net saving of $90 million.
Beggs said he does not think NOAA will save that much. He also said the Air Force is going to bear the refurbishment cost to redevelop the Titan II, a cost Beggs said could reach $100 million.
"I believe what we're talking here is a savings to NOAA and a net loss to the U.S. Treasury," Beggs said.
"I think this whole scheme should be looked at very carefully by the administration and by Congress." Taking these satellites off the shuttle will cost NASA more than $500 million in lost business, he said.
Beggs said he is concerned that the Air Force plan could set a dangerous precedent. He said he worries that the new geographical survey Landsat satellite, not yet approved by the Reagan administration, might move to a Titan II and that some commercial customers might back away from the shuttle onto Titan IIs.
An Air Force spokesman declined to comment.