The senior NASA official here said today that the presidential commission investigating the Challenger accident has needlessly damaged the reputations of space agency officials and warned that it could result in a "mass exodus" that could "cripple the agency."

Richard G. Smith, director of the Kennedy Space Center, also said in an interview that "98 percent of the pressure" to launch the Challenger, which exploded Jan. 28, killing its crew of seven, came from the news media which openly ridiculed the agency whenever there was a launch delay.

"Every time there was a delay, the press would say, 'Look, there's another delay . . . . here's a bunch of idiots who can't even handle a launch schedule,' " Smith said.

"You think that doesn't have an impact? If you think it doesn't, you're stupid."

NASA officials have come under sharp scrutiny from the presidential commission over the past month, and the commission has publicly concluded that the space agency's decision-making process was "flawed."

Smith was among those agency officials originally assigned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to investigate the Challenger accident but later was removed from that role at the request of the commission which thought it improper to allow officials to investigate themselves.

Smith, who said at one point that "I may get fired for this interview," asserted that many officials -- including himself -- are "fed up" with the battering the agency has taken from journalists and are considering retirement.

"I think there's a potential of long-term damage that cannot be repaired," Smith said. "I'm getting a lot of people who would like to retire, that want to leave . . . . You know that most of employes at NASA could make two or three times what they make in the private sector."

Smith placed at least part of the blame on the presidential panel headed by former secretary of state William P. Rogers, which, he said, criticized NASA's decision-making process without first determining what caused the explosion. In the process, the panel has "run a great risk of needlessly damaging the reputations of people, companies and the agency . . . . "

Smith said he was not criticizing the commission request that he and others be removed from the probe. His prime concern, he said, is the manner in which the the commission has conducted its investigation.

"I've never seen a failure investigation be conducted the way this commission is working," he said. "I don't think it's a malicious thing . . . . But in every investigation I've ever been in, you first find out what the source of the problem is."

Commission spokesman Mark Weinberg said that Rogers would have no comment on Smith's remarks because "it does not serve anybody's interest to do so."

But shortly after a reporter asked for a response through Weinberg, Rogers contacted Smith and protested his remarks.

"He called me and said I was trying to impugn the commission's process," Smith said in a subsequent telephone interview. Smith then asked that his earlier on-the-record comments not be published.

"What I'm trying to do is avoid an open frontal attack on the commission," Smith said. "But I am concerned about the process and how it's been reported and the damage that could do to people's reputations."

During the earlier 90-minute interview in his office here, Smith said that most of the agency's senior officials, including himself, will stay on for the next year while the shuttle program is being rebuilt.

But, he said, "you'll have a mass exodus of key people after that first successful launch and then I'm not sure what you've got left . . . .I might be part part of the exodus . . . . It potentially will cripple the agency." NASA managers had already been concerned because the average age of NASA employes, many of whom joined the agency in the early '60s, has been rising and a generation of engineers and scientists is reaching retirement age.

Asked for comment, Adm. Richard Truly, the agency's new associate administrator for space flight, acknowledged today that "these are not easy times" for NASA and that "certainly, there will be people who will probably retire as a result of all this."

"But when the whole thing is over, we're going to be stronger than we were before. I don't think there's going to be a mass exodus."

Smith is an outgoing Alabama native who has been with NASA almost from its inception and once worked as part of Wernher von Braun's team of German scientists that helped develop the United States' first large rockets.

If there was a "flaw" in the decision to launch, as the Rogers panel has concluded, the blame should go to managers of Morton Thiokol Inc., who overruled their engineers' recommendations against launching in the hours before the launch, Smith said.

He said "there was serious flaw in the Thiokol process of going to launch" and the company will "have to justify" it. Smith hinted that it could result in revocation of the company's right to sole-source bidding on the rocket boosters. "Past performance is always something that you have to consider in any decision-making process," he said.

Smith said he was "puzzled" by chief astronaut John Young's March 4 memo contending that launch schedule pressure was compromising safety on the shuttle.

"I'm a little puzzled why he's chosen now to write some of these memos," Smith said. "I've personally never heard him make that statement before . . . . I think if you poll all the astronauts, you'll find that quite a few don't agree with him."

Smith also said there was no White House pressure to launch the Challenger in order to get it into orbit in time for the State of the Union address, which was scheduled on the evening of Jan. 28.