The death of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger has rekindled a quiet but continuing debate over the advisability of including ordinary citizens on shuttle crews.
Both critics and supporters agree that Tuesday's disaster will delay NASA's two-year-old civilian "Space Flight Participation Program," but disagreement over its eventual continuation sharpened.
Those opposed to sending ordinary citizens into space argue that the program blunts the basic research task of the shuttle program, serving instead as a public relations ploy by NASA to win support for its budget. NASA officials and other supporters contend it is an important and legitimate educational tool consistent with the agency's mandate.
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), the first American to orbit the Earth, praised McAuliffe's sacrifice but strongly criticized NASA's use of civilians. All spots in this "embryonic stage" of shuttle flights, he said, should go to those involved in "basic research."
"If the taxpayers come to believe that the space program is becoming a cosmic carnival ride, then we face the very real prospect that they may withdraw their support," Glenn warned.
NASA officials disagree. "I never saw anybody say, 'How can we turn this into a public affairs event?' " said Alan Ladwig, manager of NASA's space flight participation program. "There are easier ways to hype things than what we've done to put together a good program . . . . [The flight] was directed at educating young people about science and technology, using space as a medium."
McAuliffe, 37, a high school teacher from Concord, N.H., was to have become the first ordinary citizen in space, and NASA had planned a heavy media orchestration of the event. By the deadline earlier this month, 1,703 journalists had applied for the "journalist-in-space" program, which would put one of their number aboard a shuttle mission in late September.
NASA officials also envisioned welcoming artists, poets, entertainers, blue-collar workers and others onto future shuttle crews. Two congressional subcommitttee chairmen with space agency oversight, Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) and Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) preceded McAuliffe on shuttle crews.
Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.), who chairs the investigations subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, said it is "inappropriate not only for members of Congress but anybody other than astronauts and shuttle specialists" to join shuttle missions. "What NASA and the president tried to do is use civilians in space as a way to build popular support for the space program . . . a commendable aim, but I still question it."
Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), said McAuliffe's mission was "every bit as important" as the work of Gregory B. Jarvis, a Hughes Aircraft engineer researching the effects of weightlessness on fluids. He said that public relations "may have been the most important single element" in the push to send teachers and others into space, but he added, "I don't necessarily consider that to be a criticism. Not only is public support important but public understanding of what the public is receiving from the space program . . . . Yes, it's public relations, but it's public relations in a very positive sense."
For now, the civilian flight program, along with the launching of future shuttles, is on hold, as government investigators attempt to determine what went wrong with Challenger. Even strong congressional supporters of sending citizens into space said yesterday the program would have to be reviewed before any future missions could be launched with civilians aboard.
Gorton said his committee and others "are going to look into . . . whether or not we should continue with the civilian program."
Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), who serves on a House subcommittee with authority over the space program, said, "Did we move too fast? This tragedy has to raise that question. I don't think we did. I think this is just one of those unfortunate things that couldn't have been avoided." However, he said, "we'll want to see several more successful shuttle flights before we open it up to the next civilian."
NASA's budget has received increasing scrutiny as budget deficits have soared. Arguments have been made that NASA's activities were designed more to justify its budget than for scientific research. The agency's budget has been growing about 3 to 4 percent annually. Of this year's $7.6 billion total, $3.4 billion is for the shuttle program.
"Yes, they do information dissemination activities as a [public relations] campaign to protect their budget," said an aide to a senator who is highly supportive of the citizens in space program. "It's a political environment in which their budget numbers are determined."
For the McAuliffe mission, NASA distributed slide shows, videotapes and other materials, and, in coordination with teachers' unions, distributed 2 million teacher guides. The top 10 teachers in the competition were to take a year off to work with NASA and over 100 others were to speak around the nation as "space ambassadors."
A 1983 NASA task force report about civilian participation said the agency "should not appear to be using the program to build public support. NASA should avoid public relations gimmicks."
Tony Reichhardt, editor of Space World Magazine, said that during the early years of the program, "you really had the 'Right Stuff' type of idolatry." Now, he said, "the launches are much more routine, so you have to publicize it a different way."