WASHINGTON—The hiatus in U.S. unmanned planetary missions, caused by the explosion 13 months ago of the Space Shuttle Challenger, has made it possible for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena to take on a new role as manager for a portion of the agency's troubled space station program.

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...

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