President Reagan may delay funding for a new $2.8 billion space shuttle orbiter until next year after his top budget adviser strongly objected to the project at a National Security Council meeting yesterday, administration sources said.
The meeting was the first time Reagan has become involved in the heated interagency debate over a new shuttle to replace the destroyed Challenger. Reagan has endorsed a new orbiter, but his aides have sharply divided over how to pay for it at a time of high budget deficits.
Administration officials stressed that no decisions were made at yesterday's meeting. White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Reagan got several recommendations, "took the views under advisement and will make a decision in the next several days."
Sources who attended the meeting said administration officials remain split over proceeding with a new orbiter, with Office of Management and Budget Director James C. Miller III and Deputy Secretary of Commerce Clarence J. Brown arguing strongly against the project.
One option discussed at the meeting, sources said, was to delay commitment of any funds until the fiscal year 1988 budget, which is to be submitted to Congress in January. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Administrator James C. Fletcher has asked for about $500 million fiscal year 1987. But one participant at the meeting said, "more and more funding in fiscal year '87 looks tougher and tougher because we're running out of time."
Another approach under consideration would have the president endorse the orbiter and provide start-up funding this year to "keep the assembly lines going," but delaying any large commitment of funds until next year. Also being considered is a proposal that private industry build the orbiter and lease it back to NASA.
An Economic Policy Council meeting is scheduled today to consider related issues in the space debate, including removing commercial and foreign satellites from the shuttle schedule and rescheduling them on unmanned rockets. That would lessen the need for a new shuttle orbiter.
Staff writer Lou Cannon contributed to this report.