Despite the sense of privilege and excitement in being an astronaut, some members of the U.S. astronaut corps say their office is beset by low morale, internal division and a management style that uses flight assignments as a tool to suppress discussion and dissent.

Many astronauts said they feel their talents are underutilized by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and some said their office is run less on merit or equity than on favoritism.

Nine current or former astronauts were interviewed during the last several weeks. While they were not in complete agreement on the extent or the consequences of this dissatisfaction, they nonetheless painted a picture of astronaut life sharply at odds with the public image of unity and amity -- and at odds with NASA's public posture that all dissenting voices are heard.

Most of those interviewed by The Washington Post spoke on the condition that they not be identified -- out of fear, they said, of losing future space flight assignments or NASA contracts. They described the man who runs the astronaut office and makes crew assignments, George W.S. Abbey, director of flight crew operations, as an autocratic boss who brooks little disagreement.

Abbey and chief astronaut John W. Young refused several requests for interviews, and declined two requests to answer these specific criticisms.

The presidential commission investigating the Jan. 28 Challenger accident has scheduled a public hearing in Washington Thursday to explore criticisms of NASA's safety policies by Young and other astronauts.

Among witnesses expected to testify are Young; his deputy, Paul Weitz; Abbey's deputy, astronaut Robert L. Crippen; and former astronaut Richard H. Truly, head of space flight for NASA.

The hearing is expected to focus on Young's assertion in an internal memo to Abbey last month that an overly ambitious launch schedule led NASA to compromise safety, panel sources said.

Several former astronauts told The Post that the astronauts as a group have always grumbled about the politics of the astronaut office, seen as an inevitable result of competition among talented and ambitious people. It is a situation, all agreed, that is complicated by the policy of allowing one person, currently Abbey, to make flight assignments.

"This sounds like something that's always been there, for 25 years," said former astronaut Deke Slayton, who ran the office until 1975. "The flavor is not at all unusual. Christ, there were all kinds of people unhappy with my decisions."

But others, including some whose tenure spans both the Slayton and the Abbey eras, say the current frustrations are wider, and not attributable solely to competition for flight assignments among the 95 current active-duty astronauts.

"There is certainly a lot of frustration and unhappiness," said one longtime astronaut. "It's not quantitative, it's not something you could see on paper. It's qualitative. The program wastes people, it doesn't develop their careers, it doesn't develop people well."

Broadly, the astronauts' concerns were:The organization of the astronaut office sometimes prevents safety concerns from being adequately discussed.

*Despite NASA's public assertion that it listens to all dissenting voices, an astronaut who disagrees with those who run the astronaut office is at the risk of losing -- or never receiving -- flight assignments.

*The astronauts are divided between a favored in-group and a much larger out-group, with the most meaningful and challenging assignments going to those who curry favor with Abbey and Young.

*NASA's commitment to scientist-astronauts is hollow, with nonpilots flying far less than others, and with scientist-astronauts feeling that they imperil their chances for future flights if they make serious efforts to stay current in their scientific specialties.

All those interviewed agreed that their concerns predate the Challenger disaster, although the accident served to focus their discontent.

In the wake of the accident, a pair of memos written by Young about safety were leaked. They used blunt language to argue that because of schedule pressure and management problems, shuttle safety was no longer NASA's first consideration.

The astronauts interviewed said such Young memos are not unusual, but that they cannot be taken at face value.

"He would send out these memos," said an astronaut who just left the corps. "And if he criticized some piece of equipment, the astronaut responsible for monitoring that hardware might take that memo into a meeting and attempt to wage an offensive campaign to make changes.

"But if the going got tough, John would invariably side with senior management against the astronaut."

One such incident involved the angle at which the shuttle would descend to the runway from orbit. According to several astronauts, the engineers wanted the shuttle to return at a descent angle of 26 degrees (a commercial airliner comes into the runway at about 2.5 degrees).

"John went out and flew a T38 [jet] through it, and said, 'Absolutely not, that's ridiculous,' " recalled the former astronaut. An astronaut was assigned to study the question.

"So there was this big meeting, and the engineers said they could cut it back to 22 degrees, at the most, and the astronaut who had researched it said it should be 18 degrees," the astronaut recalled.

"So the discussion went on, and finally, the man chairing the meeting said to Young, 'We'll give you 22 or 24 degrees.' "And John said, 'Well, you pick anything you want, my guys'll hack it.'

"The astronaut felt set up. He'd been told to prepare an argument by John, and then John went to the meeting and said it didn't make any difference.

"After that happens to you a couple of times, you don't go into meetings and make a fuss anymore," the astronaut said.

Several astronauts suggested that part of the problem is that astronauts must take their safety concerns to the same people who make flight crew decisions -- Abbey and Young. "If you raised your voice about safety, you were told that if you were too big a coward to fly, they'd find somebody else," said a former astronaut.

Raising an issue outside normal channels, said a current astronaut, is foolish: "It's hard enough to be effective without intentionally shooting yourself in the foot."

The irony, several astronauts suggested, is that astronauts have perhaps the broadest and most detailed knowledge of the space shuttle's condition.

"The astronaut office sees the shuttle as a whole, and they are in the strongest position to make a statement about safety," said a former astronaut.

The question of who gets to fly and how that is decided are constant concerns among astronauts. The process of selecting crews is secret, NASA acknowledges, and is in the hands of Abbey.

The result, those interviewed said, is not only a hesitancy to raise issues that might irritate Abbey, but also a perception that his selection process favors astronauts in "his" group.

"In order to be promoted, to get good assignments, you learned to read the wind," said a former astronaut. "The people who were good at tracking the boss's mood, who told him what he wanted to hear, those people got all the neat assignments."

Alan Bean, a former astronaut, acknowledged that picture of the office as accurate. "I think that's the way the world runs, not just the astronaut office . . . . I think this sort of management is a definite motivational tool. It keeps people hustling. It does put a lot of stress on people, but people who can play the game are going to do well."

According to those currently in the office, there is a small, inner group of Abbey favorites -- about nine people, including veteran astronauts such as Crippen and relative newcomers such as Sally K. Ride.

"That is without a doubt the way it is," said one current astronaut. "They get more responsibilities and they fly more. The power structure that exists versus the one that is on paper are not at all the same."

Said one former astronaut who praised Abbey's tenure and flight selection decisions, "I can see how a lot of people could see it that way, and it wouldn't be an inaccurate perception."

The most immediate consequence, current astronauts said, is that mainly those from the inner circle are working on the Challenger investigation, the most desirable current assignment available.

Ride is on the commission and Crippen is working in support of the NASA investigative task force.

Those not in the in-group are concerned that complaints of the majority of astronauts will not be heard.

"I don't think she'll bring these things up," said one current astronaut about Ride, "because she's fairly happy."

Ride heads the commission subcommittee investigating the Johnson Space Center, including the astronaut office.

"At best, you can't say that that's an objective situation," said a current astronaut. "You can't really expect anything relating to Abbey or his activities to get to the commission . . . . People in the office are concerned that the commission will simply be told, 'Everything's fine in the astronaut office.' "

There also is a perception that the in-group unjustly gets better and more frequent flight assignments, though this is difficult to challenge or prove because the process is secret.

The in-group is heavily weighted with current or former Navy fliers, astronauts said. They suggested that one measure of the equity of flight assignments is the frequency with which Navy pilots ride the shuttle in one of the two command positions, pilot or commander.

Of the 30 such positions in the first 15 shuttle flights, Navy or former Navy officers flew 18, although they are fewer than half of those who qualify.

All but one of the nine people identified by those interviewed as members of the inner circle flew during the first nine shuttle flights, and Young and Crippen each flew twice.

"It's easy to see," said a current astronaut who waited more than a decade for his first flight. "All you have to do is look at the assignment list. This office runs on the standard American principle of cronyism."

But it is also possible, one former astronaut suggested, that Navy pilots are better trained and deserve to fly more often, as it is possible that Abbey's inner group includes those he perceives as most talented.

"One of the things you get to do when you're the boss is you get to make decisions," Bean said. "Why would you do all the work necessary to become the boss if they were going to pick the crews by lottery or three years in advance?"

More than half of the active astronauts are scientists -- physicians, geologists, astronomers, engineers, chemists and physicists -- not pilots.

Several of the scientist-astronauts interviewed said, however, that they feel almost like second-class citizens and that Abbey discourages them from spending time to keep up with their scientific specialties.

"If you are doing science, they are annoyed that you aren't doing astronaut things," said one current astronaut.

"We were warned," said another astronaut, "that we couldn't be research scientists. But we were also told that they would help us in whatever way they could, give us some time and money, if we wanted to take courses, if we could manage it."

That is not now the case, the scientist-astronauts said. "You lose brownie points if you want to do science. All the clever young scientists have taken on the protective coloration of engineers," said one.

Bean, who resigned from NASA in 1981, said the problem is with the astronauts, not the agency.

"The astronaut office is a framework in which you are called on to do certain things," he said. "Help design the aircraft. Fly it. Provide a certain amount of ground support. What you are not called on to do is science. Nobody in the world is trying to get astronauts to do science . . . . There is a job to be done in space, and none of it is science."

A related complaint, more common among the scientist-astronauts than others, is that the tasks assigned the astronauts often could be done as capably by others, and don't require the talents of the corps.

"Some of the things I'm asked to do," said an astronaut, "well, someone's got to do them, but I'm not sure it's the best use of my time."

Bean, however, said all jobs come with mundane, less exciting aspects and that astronauts should not judge their profession by those.

"You never hear this complaint once people are assigned to a flight crew, because then they are doing what they want to do," Bean said.