NASA's plans to centralize agency management in Washington, which include shrinking the responsibilities of Johnson Space Center in Houston, have run into an old-fashioned political buzz saw in Texas.
Angry business and political leaders there, already facing economic troubles because of the decline in oil prices, are fighting the move on grounds that it will cost the state jobs, prestige and its traditional role at the heart of America's manned space program.
The flap caught NASA's beleaguered top brass by surprise and forced Administrator James C. Fletcher to pay fence-mending visits to Capitol Hill and Houston this week. The controversy also sheds light on the bitterness, frustration and disarray within the agency in the wake of the Jan. 28 Challenger disaster.
It started with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's June 30 announcement that the agency would move management of the $8 billion space station, the nation's next major space project, from Houston's Johnson center to Washington headquarters, and shift certain of the jobs at Johnson to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The decision was the result of recommendations made to Fletcher by a team headed by former Apollo program manager Gen. Samuel C. Phillips. The group's long-term review of NASA management, including the space station, was inspired by the Challenger accident and encouraged by the findings of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the accident.
When NASA officials announced their decision, one high-level NASA source said, they were unaware that the Houston business community had made the space center's lead role in the space station a key part of their economic redevelopment plan.
According to Rep. Mike A. Andrews (D-Tex.), who represents Houston, the NASA announcement has caused three major contractors to suspend negotiations on possible relocation of certain operations there (one of whom later denied it).
The unemployment rate in the Houston area, where the economy has fallen along with oil industry fortunes, is expected to hit a record high of about 12 percent by the end of summer.
A group of Houston business leaders met Tuesday with Vice President Bush, House Majority Leader Rep. James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) and others to argue their case for maintaining Houston's leading role in the station's development.
Gerald Griffin, former director of the Johnson center and now president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, arranged the trip. The chamber last week said the NASA reorganization "threatens the long-range future of the Johnson Space Center as the premier manned space center of NASA."
One of the elements fueling the controversy apparently was NASA's failure to adjust to the post-Challenger era of congressional relations, in which the agency can no longer count on the unskeptical support it once had. Some members of Congress complained they were blind-sided by its announcement. "The first any of us heard about this was about 25 minutes before the June 30 press conference," said one Texas congressional aide. "It was presented as technical and minor, a shift of less than 100 jobs."
Johnson center officials, responding to a request from Andrews, estimated the changes will cost Houston as many as 1,900 future jobs that would have come with the space station's development and $1.5 billion in government spending.
NASA officials Thursday issued a news release based on "joint analysis by NASA headquarters and JSC" stressing that Johnson center employment will increase from the current 12,600 to an average of 14,000 as the space station progresses. Another 1,000 job slots that Johnson was counting on may or may not go to Johnson, depending on decisions not yet made, it said, and added, "Another way to look at this is that without the space station program, JSC's employment level likely will not grow significantly . . . . "
Fletcher met Thursday on Capitol Hill with both Texas senators, Andrews and others in the Texas delegation. Yesterday he went to Houston to meet with the mayor and Johnson center officials, to explain the NASA decision once again and try to reassure them.
Most controversial, perhaps, are the jobs assigned to development of the inside of the "habitation module" -- the astronauts' living quarters on the space station. Those jobs, the kind of work Johnson considers its specialty, are being moved to Marshall.
NASA officials reasoned that it would be most cost-effective to have one contractor work on both the habitation module and the lab module -- the science laboratory -- and that moving all the work to Huntsville rather than to Houston was the least complex choice. Marshall already was providing the external shells for all the modules.
The shift of power goes to the heart of a longstanding rivalry between Johnson, the glamorous home of the astronauts and the lead center for the shuttle, and Marshall, which specializes in rocket propulsion. Its workers have felt upstaged by Johnson, according to many at NASA.
A Marshall manager taunted a colleague from Johnson after the June 30 announcement, jeering, "How does it feel," according to the Houston Chronicle.
And at Johnson, the paper reported, an employe said of Marshall, "They blew up our orbiter and killed the crew. Why are they being rewarded?" The Rogers Commission concluded that it was a rocket booster under Marshall's supervision that caused the Challenger to disintegrate.
That the controversy has gone so far is a result in part of the "thinness" of top NASA management, where a number of top positions are vacant and others are in transition, a top NASA official said.