The Bush administration yesterday ordered an outside review of the future direction of the space program but insisted that the review did not indicate a lack of confidence in the leadership of NASA Administrator Richard H. Truly.
The announcement, made in a three-paragraph written statement by Vice President Quayle, the chairman of the White House's space council, comes amid a string of embarrassments to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that include the malfunctioning of the $1.6 billion Hubble Space Telescope and the grounding of the space shuttle fleet.
Quayle, who met with Truly three times in the past week including an hour yesterday, said he had asked the administrator "to put together an outside task force that will consider the future long-term direction of the space program."
An administration official described the task force as a "brain trust of sorts" that will have a mandate to "broadly look ahead at how public enthusiasm and confidence in the space program can be engendered so that the agency can perform its mission."
In the face of a spate of reports that the White House would go further and call for a broad restructuring of NASA, the vice president's office decided suddenly yesterday to issue the statement announcing the outside review of NASA's future. "Contrary to some published reports, there is no White House investigation of NASA," the statement noted. Senior White House officials said Quayle had favored a more extensive study of NASA and its organization and performance but that Truly and others objected, saying such a move would imply a lack of confidence in Truly's leadership.
The administrator, in a written statement, cited the Quayle announcement as an expression of confidence in him and NASA. "I am pleased the vice president has expressed his confidence in NASA," Truly noted. "NASA will continue to work closely with the Space Council in pursuit of the president's remarkable vision for America's space destiny." Truly said he was confident that the space shuttle "will be flying again soon" and that "timely corrections" will be made to Hubble. Truly and former NASA administrator James Beggs are scheduled to testify today before the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA in one of of many congressional probes of the agency's problems and its structure.
At the same time, President Bush has asked Congress for large funding increases for the agency to continue the $32 billion space station and to meet the goal of a permanent manned base on the moon and an expedition to Mars.
Quayle noted that space continues to be a "top priority" for an administration that wants "the best ideas on how we can move into the next century maintaining our leadership in space."
Quayle has been involved in an intensive round of discussions on NASA, including a session with Truly and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu aboard Air Force Two Wednesday while returning from the Houston summit. Quayle and Truly also talked with members of Congress last week.
In less than a month, NASA disclosed a major defect in the space telescope, grounded the shuttle fleet because of hydrogen fuel leaks and watched funding for the president's pet space project, the moon and Mars exploration plan, curtailed in the House. These events, officials said, caused deep concern in the administration over the agency's image and the level of public and congressional support for the space program.