The loss of Challenger has delayed for several years planned missions to Venus, Mars, Jupiter and explorations of the sun that will be carried out by the Laboratory, which is operated by the California Institute of Technology. But it has allowed JPL to dispatch a team of 40 to 50 systems engineers and analysts to Washington to help to oversee the work to be done on the $13 billion space station.
"We're a creature of NASA," said JPL Director Lew Allen Jr. when asked if the Laboratory had requested a role in the space station. "They were looking for someone to help them out, and we're happy to make a contribution."
The JPL team will be led by Richard Laeser, who directed the Voyager project through its encounter with Uranus last winter and who has just completed preparations for its flight past Neptune in 1989. David Black will continue to be the "ombudsman" for scientists, Laeser said, and queries about proposals to conduct research aboard the space station are being handled by Richard Halpern. Both men work at NASA headquarters.
The creation of a management team comes at a time when the future of the space station is becoming increasingly cloudy. Earlier this month, NASA Administrator James Fletcher told the Senate space subcommittee that an internal dispute over the total cost of the space station has forced the agency to delay for several weeks its request for bids from contractors to build the station's various parts. The cost, once estimated at $8 billion for the U.S. portion of the station, has risen by at least 50 percent, and the scheduled completion date has been moved back from 1994 to later in the decade.
NASA officials may also have to contend with reaction to an upcoming report from the Congressional Budget Office that raises the possibility of canceling both the shuttle and space station to reduce the federal deficit. Fletcher called such a suggestion "unthinkable," adding that it would be "a terrible mistake" to sacrifice the nation's space program on the altar of a $200 billion deficit.
NASA officials hope that the new management structure, modeled after the successful Apollo project to the moon, will end the jockeying for position among the various field centers that will be responsible for the design, construction and deployment of the space station. It reverses its initial plan to have the Johnson Space Center in Houston serve as "lead center" for the project, but it parallels the advice of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger tragedy, that officials at headquarters assume greater control over efforts by the agency.