WASHINGTON -- NASA administrator James Fletcher says his battered agency has 'turned the corner' in its long recovery from the Challenger disaster and President Reagan's planned budget for 1988 should help the space program get back on track.
Fletcher said the $9.5 billion spending plan places top priority on returning the remaining three shuttles to flight status and readying Discovery for launch in February 1988 -- more than two years after the explosion that killed seven astronauts and destroyed Challenger.
'Nearly a year after the Challenger accident, we have turned the corner in our recovery efforts,' Fletcher said at a news conference Monday outlining the budget proposal. 'Gradually, we are getting the spaceprogram back on track.'
But Fletcher, picked by Reagan last spring to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to recovery, said the Feb. 18, 1988 date for the next shuttle flight is only the best current estimate on when the shuttle's problems will be corrected and Discovery will be ready to fly.
'No date is sacred,' he said. 'We're not going to fly until it's safe to do so. There's always the possibility of a surprise, what we call an unknown unknown. We've tried to plan for all the known unknowns, the things that could happen in the process of the testing and so forth.'
Fletcher said the budget calls for $3.7 billion for the shuttle system and includes money to correct the booster rocket defects that triggered the Challenger explosion, to improve other shuttle systems and implement recommendations from the presidential commission that investigated the accident.
The investigation into the accident revealed major weaknesses in NASA's safety programs, and the fiscal 1988 budget calls for a 76 percent increase -- to $16.2 million -- for safety, reliability and quality assurance programs.
Fletcher said the spending plan also calls for the addition of 625 people to strengthen the space program next year.
The final appropriation for the current fiscal year is $10.5 billion, but includes $2.1 billion to pay for a replacement for Challenger. The 1988 plan represents a significant increase over the original, pre-Challenger budget for 1987.
Although Reagan's proposal is lower than the funds sought by the space agency, it is seen as a victory for Fletcher because the White House Office of Management and Budget reportedly wanted to hold NASA to $7 billion to $8 billion for the coming fiscal year.
'I think its a good budget considering the difficult situation the country finds itself in right now,' Fletcher said. 'I think NASA was treated fairly.'