The firestorm of criticism that has engulfed the U.S. space program this summer has led to yet another government-ordered study on its future. This one, however, could actually lead to the overhaul that was called for after the 1986 Challenger disaster, but never carried out.

That, at least, is the hope of a wide sampling of key players in the space community -- from former astronauts to space scientists to Congress. There is little agreement about what form the overhaul should take, but they may all have to pin their divergent expecta- tions on the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program.

On its face, the committee seems unlikely to break new ground. It is made up mostly of aerospace veterans, some of whom already have their names on earlier space studies. The panel has also been dismissed by some as a paper tiger born out of a power struggle between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its administrator, Richard H. Truly, and the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Quayle.

But the man Truly selected to head the new study committee -- Norman R. Augustine, chief executive officer of Martin Marietta Corp. -- is said to be widely respected for his management savvy and integrity. He says he wouldn't have taken the job unless he was convinced the panel's recommendations have a good chance of being enacted.

President Bush, according to one source, told Augustine that "he is prepared to hear and act on any conclusions the group reaches on any subject" related to the space program governmentwide.

"There's a chance someone might actually go do what we suggest. . . . It's sobering," the Augustine said in an interview at his company's Bethesda headquarters last week. He declined to comment on what Bush told him.

Augustine, echoing officials at NASA and the White House, said that for this panel, "Everything is on the table. . . . We've not placed any limits on our options. We're

not looking for the dramatic.

We're looking for the sensible. If the sensible is dramatic, that's fine."

Bush has hung his political hat on a long-term space exploration initiative that would ultimately send people to Mars. He has asked Congress to increase NASA's next budget more than any other agency's. And as the first president in more than two decades to take such an interest in the civilian space program, he and his advisers intend to make sure, sources said, that the program is handled in a way that makes it a political asset, not an embarrassment.

NASA's first proposal for carrying out the Mars initiative reportedly disappointed the White House. "It was viewed as a stolid response to what the White House thought was a very exciting presidential initiative. . . . NASA wanted to give eight contracts to its eight major contractors," said one space analyst.

The panel, which is expected to issue its report by Christmas, could recommend sending the controversial proposed space station back to the drawing board, for example, or gearing it to a new unmanned launch system rather than the manned shuttle. The station seems bogged in a swamp of technical, management and budget problems -- though NASA officials say they are wrestling it into "do-ability."

NASA's management structure, criticized for years as a fossil of the Apollo era, could be recast. One suggestion being kicked around is to privatize some NASA centers on the model of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, as suggested by the National Academy of Sciences in 1988 -- though NASA officials say this would be expensive. Or the panel might recommend splitting the agency into separate arms -- one for advanced research and another to operate programs such as the shuttles and the space station.

NASA Deputy Administrator J.R. Thompson acknowledged that

the panel is free to "say some things NASA may not want to hear." But members also could help the agency solve some of its stickiest problems, he said. "They may recommend multi-year funding" for the space program, for example, or the

construction of another shuttle orbiter.

Augustine said his panel was

selected for its diversity and

open-mindedness. "We tried to avoid people so committed {to a point of view that} they'd be unlikely to change their minds if given new facts."

Augustine acknowledged that his position as head of a major aerospace company with 27 NASA contracts puts him in an odd position. "Clearly I have involvements that could be viewed as conflicts," he said, a point raised recently by Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.).

Administration sources said they wanted experts who could hit the ground running, and that meant getting people with involvement in the space program.

Augustine said he will "leave the room" when topics involving potential conflicts are discussed and plans other measures to minimize the concern, such as filing written disclosure forms on the panel members' potential conflicts. Also, he said, the panel's discussions will be open to the public.

Space policy analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University, an adviser to the Quayle space council, said the panel "may be the last opportunity for a while to get things straightened out. . . . The major troubles are not individuals, but deeply rooted institutional problems in the way NASA is organized and does business."

The summer blast of venom -- the worst for NASA since the Challenger disaster -- was triggered when, within the same week in June, a major flaw created 10 years ago was discovered in the orbiting $1.6 billion Hubble Space Telescope and the shuttle fleet was grounded because of hydrogen leaks in two of the three shut- tles.

But there is general agreement that these events are not the crux of the problem.

"The spate of problems brought into focus concerns that have been out there for a while," said a congressional aide who specializes in space issues. Perhaps chief among these, he said, is concern about NASA's ability to manage numerous complex programs.

The panel was formed as the result of a meeting aboard the plane carrying the vice president back from the July economic summit in Texas, according to several accounts. Invited along were scientist Bruce Murray of the California Institute of Technology, long a critic of the manned space program; former NASA official Hans Mark; former Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan; former NASA administrator and Northrop Corp. chief Thomas O. Paine; and Craig Fuller, former Bush campaign manager and a space aficionado.

"The subject was that the sys- tem needs change," said one person

who was present. But the only

consensus the group could reach was that a panel should be appointed.

Word leaked to the news media that the White House was planning to "shake up" current NASA management. Administration sources say this was not true. "Can you imagine the vice president or Mark {Albrecht, space council staff director} really believe that firing Truly would restore confidence in NASA?" said one administration official.

Truly and Thompson, his chief lieutenant, are viewed by many as providing the strongest leadership NASA has had in years.

But Truly, believing the reports, complained to Bush, who "went ballistic." The president backed Truly, and the panel was directed to report to Truly first.

Truly was out of the country last week and unavailable for comment. But Thompson, while welcoming the panel's review, cautioned against change for change's sake. "We're on the ragged edge of having the right NASA," he said. Panelists: From Military, Space, Industry Circles

Members of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program:

Edward C. Aldridge Jr., president of the McDonnell Douglas Electronics Systems Corp. and former secretary of the Air Force.

Joseph P. Allen, a former astronaut and president of Space Industries International Inc.

D. James Baker, president of Joint Oceanographic Institutions Inc.

Edward P. Boland, former

Democratic House member from Massachusetts who chaired the committee that oversees NASA's budget.

Daniel J. Fink, retired senior vice president of General Electric Co.

Don Fuqua, former Democratic House member from Florida and president of the Aerospace Industries Association of America.

Robert T. Herres, retired Air Force general and former commander of the U.S. Space Command.

David T. Kerns, chairman of Xerox Corp.

Louis J. Lanzerotti, AT&T Bell Laboratories scientist and chairman of the space studies board of the National Research Council.

Thomas O. Paine, former NASA administrator and former chairman of the National Commission on Space.

Laurel Wilkening, provost of the University of Washington and former member of the National Commission on Space.