President Reagan, after reviewing the Rogers commission report on the Challenger accident, is expected to order soon that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration carry out recommendations for sweeping reforms in its management and shuttle safety procedures, White House officials said yesterday.
"The presumption is going to be that these are the experts and that anyone who opposes the recommendations, the burden is on them to say why," one official said.
Meanwhile, the officials said White House officials continue to ask about the wisdom of building a new $2.8 billion shuttle orbiter to replace Challenger.
A National Security Council session is to be held soon about that and other pending decisions on the future of the U.S. space program, and officials said a new options paper is being prepared for the president.
Although White House officials had said Reagan is expected to approve construction of a new shuttle orbiter, which NASA supports strongly, White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan has raised several questions about the need for it.
As recently as last Friday, the officials said, Regan complained that he had not received answers to questions he raised more than two weeks ago about justification for a new orbiter.
Another official said national security affairs adviser John M. Poindexter has also raised questions recently about the need for another orbiter, and new NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher has said the space agency would have trouble absorbing the entire cost of a new orbiter.
"There have been some comments from NASA that, if it comes out of their hide, they'd rather not have one," this official said.
He added that Fletcher appeared to be pushing the White House to find additional funding elsewhere to build the new orbiter. By some estimates, fixing the shuttle, building a new orbiter and buying more unmanned rockets could cost $5 billion to $8 billion.
But, the official said, "it is hard for a lot of people to understand" why so much money should be spent for a new shuttle orbiter, described even by supporters as a "redundant" backup for the existing three orbiters.
"That's a hard bite of the apple when you're dealing with a tight budget," the official said. Regan, Poindexter and Fletcher have all said recently that the new orbiter should not be a "sacred cow," the official said.
Officials said that Regan continues to question the wisdom of investing additional funds in shuttle technology developed in the 1970s and has pressed the issue of whether it should be used for advanced technology.
In addition to deciding about the new orbiter, the president also faces decisions about using unmanned rockets to carry military and commercial satellites into orbit, frequency of future missions and cargoes.
The administration is expected to shift many commercial satellites planned for shuttle missions to so-called "expendable launch vehicles" to be launched by private industry, and a White House policy council has been charged with working out details once Reagan makes the major shuttle decisions.
In remarks on receipt of the commission report, the president vowed that the administration will "do what has to be done to make our space program safe and reliable and a new source of pride to our nation."
White House officials said a small, senior-level group of presidential advisers would review the commission report in the next few days. One reason for the small group has been dissatisfaction expressed by Regan with delays by a larger interagency group studying the space program's future.
A senior official said Reagan would direct NASA soon to implement commission recommendations on reforming its management and new safety procedures.
The official said that the report is distinctive because it addresses "operational aspects of a particular project and a particular agency" and that Reagan was thus unlikely to quarrel with the recommendations.
The commission called for new safety panels and management changes and criticized the heavy flight schedule imposed on NASA before the accident Jan. 28.