Anyone can make a mistake. But when James Fletcher was head of NASA in the early 1970s, he said it would cost $10.45 million each time the agency launched the space shuttle, for which it was then seeking funds from Congress. The General Accounting Office quickly said the figure was "misleading," because, among other reasons, it left out construction costs and only covered costs of operation. In fact, the operating cost has turned out to be $151 million, up about five times even after allowing for inflation. The total cost per launch is $279 million.
So also with an estimate of the cost of lifting cargo. Mr. Fletcher told Congress it would be $100 a pound. It has turned out to be $5,264.
At a confirmation hearing two days ago, Mr. Fletcher was asked about this. The president has nominated him to head the agency again, and guide it out of the morass in which it has progressively found itself since the Challenger spacecraft exploded 74 seconds after launch on Jan. 28, killing all seven aboard. He is supposed to be the savior of this agency -- and how did he respond? "My only answer is that something happened on the way to the bank," he told his questioner, Sen. Albert Gore.
That is flippant, arrogant -- at least that is how it sounds -- and that is not what NASA needs now. Mr. Fletcher recently also denounced investigations of the Challenger accident as a "witch hunt." At his confirmation hearing he apologized, calling the remark "careless." Yet it, too, raises a question: how does he construe his purpose -- to reform the agency or to flick its problems aside?
For years NASA was everyone's darling, the model of smoothness, the unit of government that put men on the moon. Now it turns out that this image was deceptive. In an excellent lengthy story earlier this week -- the story that provided the basis for Mr. Gore's questions -- The New York Times described a sequence of reports by federal auditors extending over 15 years, complaining of waste and mismanagement by NASA running to billions of dollars. Mr. Fletcher was administrator during many of the years involved.
Former astronaut and now Sen. John Glenn seemed impatient with these issues at the hearing. "It's very disturbing," he said of the period the agency has been without an administrator. "It's been three months now. You can't go along with an agency in limbo like this . . . and expect them to recover. . . . Stop flubbing along with the lack of leadership over there."
But when did the flubbing begin? Mr. Gore recognized that "quite obviously we're on a fast track and you're the person for the job." Still, he was troubled. So are we. Mr. Fletcher, like the space program generally, bears an unaccustomed burden now. It is a burden of proof.