In an article Monday about relations between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Congress, Rep. Don Fuqua (D-Fla.) was quoted as saying he knew about a problem with rocket booster seals as early as 1981. The date should have been 1983, his reference being to the second, not the first, flight of then-astronaut Richard Truly, when there was erosion of the rocket booster nozzle.
The scene was a Senate hearing just over a year ago. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) was pressing NASA chief James M. Beggs about how the agency's contractors were performing when a voice from Leahy's side of the dais said, "I would suggest the senator might ask me some questions, too . . . . Even Mr. Beggs, as administrator, has not had the opportunity to look at it on the level that I have looked."
The voice belonged to Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's budget and an astronaut trainee who was preparing for a mission on the space shuttle that would take him into orbit for seven days in mid-April.
Garn's offer to answer questions directed at Beggs, and the subsequent trips into space by the Utah Republican and another astro-pol, Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), were among the indications of just how thoroughly the distinction had blurred between overseer and overseen in the relationship between Congress and NASA before the destruction of the shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28.
Since hammering out NASA's charter nearly three decades ago, Congress had been an unabashed booster, driving its favored offspring like a stage mother and basking in its reflected glory like a Little League father. There was in the political equation no active force opposing such a tack.
Like most of the public and the news media, Congress seldom questioned the prodigy's assertions. Even when the lives of some members of Congress were on the line, the four primary oversight committees on Capitol Hill let themselves be lulled into what Leahy describes in hindsight as a "Pollyanna view" of flight safety.
Despite appropriating tens of billions of dollars and nurturing one of the nation's most sustained technical undertakings of this century, Congress never really challenged NASA on how it assesses risks or assures flight safety, according to numerous interviews on Capitol Hill and an extensive review of hearing records. Such guarantees were taken for granted based on NASA's track record and its polished assurances, even though some in Congress now acknowledge that they knew NASA was pushing the bounds of veracity with some of its claims.
Rep. Don Fuqua (D-Fla.), who has sat on key space committees for more than 20 years, said that despite NASA's assertions, he knew the shuttle wasn't "operational" in the sense that space flights had become more routine than experimental and dangerous. "Every time Beggs said that to me, I chuckled," Fuqua added.
Instead, Congress, as is its wont, focused year after year on budget issues and why the shuttle had not lived up to NASA's promises to meet an ever more frequent flight schedule.
Even when Congress learned of potential problems through the grapevine, there was an unspoken sense of propriety that seemed to prevent "meddling," an attitude that "NASA knew best."
For example, Fuqua now says he knew about the problem with the rocket booster seals -- which investigators believe caused the Challenger explosion -- when it first appeared in November 1981. "I talked to officials and thought they had it solved," he said. "I don't get into internal management of NASA. That's not my job."
Although Congress was well aware of costly problems with the shuttle's engines, heat-shield tiles and brakes -- in part because annual reports of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel were sent to the Hill -- apparently the persistent difficulties with the O-ring seals were never mentioned to the safety panel or the oversight committees.
As a House aide put it, "We all thought the solid rocket boosters were just big dumb firecrackers."
Congressional oversight never amounted to more than what one aide called "dabbling," several sources said. Congress historically has given NASA most of the money White House budget officials would allow the agency to request.
"It's fair to say Congress has been generally uncritical," NASA general manager Phil Culbertson said. "We have been almost singularly successful in getting Congress to approve the budgets the president has approved."
Garn takes exception, however, to any suggestion that Congress hasn't been doing its job. "I think oversight has been close, but not cozy . . . . If it had been they would have gotten a lot more money. We promised NASA years ago that we'd keep them whole for inflation and we haven't done even that." He also blames the news media for "blowing NASA's problems entirely out of proportion."
Hearing transcripts indicate that there was little congressional inquiry about the now-controversial decision to put nonastronauts -- such as schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe -- into space. What discussion there was centered on whether it was appropriate to send up politicians such as Garn and Nelson before "ordinary" citizens.
Congressional empathy reached the point that some House aides used the pronoun "we" when speaking of NASA or the space community. Members of Congress became astronauts -- a mannequin of Garn in his NASA flight suit greets visitors at the Smithsonian Institute's Air and Space Museum -- and astronauts became members of Congress. John Glenn (D-Ohio), the first American to orbit the Earth, came to the Senate, followed by astronauts Harrison Schmitt and the late Jack Swigert, who came to the Senate from New Mexico and House from Colorado, respectively.
"You can't win, can you? In most cases Congress doesn't know what the hell is going on," Garn said about criticism of his space flight. "If studying NASA from the inside makes me a less-effective senator, I plead guilty."
Some experts compare Congress' paternal relationship with NASA to the close ties that once existed between the nuclear industry and the old Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.
"Only when forced to do so by outsiders in the late 1960s did Congress pay attention to safety issues related to nuclear power," said space expert John Logsdon of George Washington University. "That resulted in a fundamental reshuffling of the whole business. I think the space community is now in for a similar, though not as drastic, shakeup."
Certainly the deaths of seven astronauts in the Challenger explosion have triggered a mix of shock, anger, embarrassment and, for some on Capitol Hill, the conviction that the old political telemetry needs redesign as much as the solid rocket O-rings. If that happens, it will jostle a way of doing business that has evolved over the course of a generation and which began with the birth of the Space Age nearly 30 years ago.
Space as a Political Launch Pad
Since that October evening in 1957, when the Soviets lofted the satellite Sputnik and ignited public hysteria here, space flight has been a powerful political symbol in this country, linked tightly to America's image as a global leader. Perhaps more than any other peacetime national effort, manned space flight has worn the people's pride on its sleeve.
In most of the programs it oversees, Congress is called on to weigh competing arguments and interests. But the vast, multibillion-dollar colossus of the space effort has provoked little friction, only "either enthusiasm or indifference," as one Senate aide said.
"Congressional oversight only works effectively when there is tension in the political community, some Ralph Naders flooding us with information and saying we shouldn't do this, shouldn't do that," the aide added. "Congress is largely a reactive body."
That spirit is summed up nicely in a book entitled "Toward the Endless Frontier." It is 1,073 pages thick, weighs 5 pounds and includes photos of astronauts, scientists, space officials and the chimpanzee "Ham" after a ride in a Mercury space capsule.
But the tome is not a history of the space program. Instead, it recounts the history of the House Committee on Science and Technology, and was published by Congress in 1980 to commemorate the panel's 20th anniversary the year before.
It details with sprightly candor the legislators' care and feeding of the space agency, right down to the pork-barrel competition among members to win NASA contracts for their home states. (It is no coincidence that the "NASA crescent" of space agency strongholds that sweeps across the southern United States via Houston, Huntsville, Ala., and Cape Canaveral follows the state constituencies of the powerful Texans and others who shaped the early space program.)
The book was commissioned by Rep. Olin (Tiger) Teague (D-Tex.), who chaired key space committees through the 1960s and most of the 1970s. Eager to sell space to the people, the book says, Teague "encouraged a steady stream of congressional visitors to Cape Canaveral for manned space launches, pioneered the establishment of a visitor's center at the Cape, stressed the development of a more practical public affairs program for NASA and repeatedly needled NASA to give more attention to the spinoffs or industrial and human applications of the space program."
Teague was part of a tradition of active congressional space boosters that began with Lyndon B. Johnson, who helped sell President John F. Kennedy on the idea of the moon landing program.
As Senate majority leader in 1957, Johnson exploited the panic over Sputnik, which he likened to Pearl Harbor, and held a series of riveting hearings.
Calculated to embarrass the Eisenhower administration and advance Johnson's own presidential ambitions, the hearings also gave voice to what space historian Walter A. McDougall has called the new "symbology of American politics." They sought to enlist the brainpower of the entire nation, organized for military and civilian science and technology, as a national asset in the Cold War with the Soviets.
Although the urgency would subside and times would change, the space program would always carry the imprint of that symbology.
In those early days, members of Congress, racing like everyone else to educate themselves on the complexities of the space problem, had to decide what kind of entity should conquer space for America and with what aims. The Atomic Energy Commission, the military services and various other aeronautics and science organizations were in the competition for custody of the new program.
Congress, led by Johnson, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Rep. John W. McCormack (D-Mass.) and others, moved swiftly to create new committees to deal with the tough choices the space race had created.
Rep. Clinton Anderson (D-N.M.), a longtime backer of atomic energy who wanted to cede the space mission to the AEC, gave his colleagues an oft-quoted warning that may have helped set a tone for future congressional dealings with space policy and government-sponsored science in general: "Committee members cannot compete with scientists on their own ground. So we stay in our field -- the objective."
By the summer of 1958, Congress and the White House had agreed on the obscure National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to metamorphose, as of Oct. 1, 1958, into the new, improved National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
From the very beginning, there was never much political incentive for anyone to train a harshly critical eye on a miracle-working research program that gave the planet astro-envy, won the United States a round in the Cold War with the Soviets, touched Americans with the charisma of the Right Stuff and the romance of a new frontier, and enlivened normally somnolent budget hearings with talk of such wonders as sailing through space on a 140-acre sail propelled by sunlight.
Even after the tragic deaths of three astronauts in the 1967 Apollo fire, the committee history says, "The searching inquiries which the committee and the staff repeatedly made were all based on the assumptions that the program was a sound one and that someone was asking the right questions . . . . Members of the committee immediately rallied to the defense of the program."
Fleeting Exchange on Flight Safety
As the space program passed from the moonglow of Apollo, and the clean simplicity of the race with the Russians was supplanted by the murk of Vietnam and domestic social upheaval, the byword for the selling of space became "practicality." On Capitol Hill, it was no longer the era of wonder over zero gravity, but of zero-based budgeting. The powerful space committees ebbed in influence and were reduced in status to subcommittees.
The shuttle, a compromise bird designed by a "committee" made up of Congress, the military, the Nixon White House and the Office of Management and Budget, was sold as "the little freighter that could" -- a kind of Swiss Army Knife for space, a vehicle that could do whatever anybody needed done up there and also pay for itself by being reusable. It was to render the old, costly throwaway rockets largely obsolete.
Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), former vice president Walter F. Mondale and other liberals over the years sought to kill the shuttle as an inefficient use of money. By 1978, test problems, delays and cost overruns connected with the program were so bad that some on Capitol Hill tried to finish it off for good. That challenge was parried in large measure by the Carter administration claim that the shuttle was needed to carry up additional spy satellites for the Pentagon during SALT II arms control negotiation with the Soviets.
For the most part, however, the space program has enjoyed steady, bipartisan support -- usually about 65 percent of Congress -- with the opposition divided up between those who want to save the money for social causes and those who want to save the money, period, according to Capitol Hill veterans.
In 1979, Proxmire led a rare, and brief, congressional excursion into the topic of flight safety. This departure was prompted by a report from three consultants who expressed concern about the "narrower-than-Apollo" safety margins and recommended that this situation be brought to President Carter's attention because "the shuttle bears the burden of being a significant part of the image of U.S. technical capability."
As then-administrator Robert Frosch sought to reassure Proxmire, the senator asked, "If you delay the shuttle further, could you buy more safety?" Frosch responded, "I don't think so . . . . What I want to do is to continue to look at a more stringent test and certification program, which is what we are doing. We will not fly before we have accomplished it."
Proxmire turned to the subject of a launchpad emergency, reading aloud incredulously from an article in Aviation Week and Space Technology: " 'The primary abort mode in the event of a pad emergency such as a propellant explosion is to run quickly from the vehicle.' "
Asked if this were true, Frosch acknowledged that it was. "It does not have an escape . . . . We have not found any way that I know of to deal with that problem."
After another minute or two of discussion, the panel's attention returned to the funding and scheduling questions that have dominated congressional discussion of the shuttle.
Proxmire said he believes it is in part the space agency's "military overtones" that caused legislators to overlook safety concerns. "You don't ask the Pentagon about safety either."
Most of the differences between Congress and the administration have centered on such issues as whether to rely on private industry for a given technology, such as an advanced communication satellite, or, as Congress traditionally favors, to maintain a federal role to assure production of that technology, according to a top NASA official.
Congress has taken a keener interest in the shuttle than in other NASA initiatives, because of the sums at stake at a time when there have been growing pressures to limit federal spending, NASA's Culbertson said. "They got into greater detail on expenditures, there was a greater intensity of overview."
Some in Congress pushed for construction of a fifth orbiter, for example. Failing in that, they provided NASA extra money for spares for the remaining four orbiters. "NASA's spare parts program," said another House staffer, "resembled the Iranian air force. It was a shambles."
In fact, members of Congress often seemed to be goading NASA to ask for more money.
Now, among other decisions, Congress must decide whether to approve another orbiter to replace Challenger. Some members hope that the accident will finally force a broader debate over the goals of the space program -- a debate which, according to space expert Logsdon and others, was avoided by all parties in the early 1970s, when the shuttle was approved.
Some, such as Garn and Fuqua, say they fear overreaction in the wake of the Challenger tragedy, which they believe was an aberration in a system that generally has worked well.
But most agree that the American reach for the heavens has been permanently altered by that awful morning of Jan. 28. As Leahy put it: "The bottom line is that the ground rules will never be the same again."