On April 12, NASA commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the inaugural flight of the space shuttle with a party at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. Agency administrators made speeches. Russian dignitaries schmoozed with engineers. Only weeks before, authority over the shuttle and the International Space Station had been consolidated at the JSC, ensuring that it will be the epicenter of manned spaceflight well into the next century, so there was actually a lot to celebrate. But the party fell flat. “The acoustics were terrible, the program was disorganized, and two thirds of the people didn’t show up,” says one attendee. “It was a real mess.”

Poor planning and a lack of interest: These are the problems that plague the shuttle program today. More than three decades after the United States entered the space race, boosters and bashers agree that NASA’s most visible division is at a crossroads. Clearly there are reasons for optimism: scientific successes like the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope and the launch of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory; plans for the shuttle program to embark on its original mission of hauling aloft a space station. But just the same, there are dark clouds on NASA’s horizon. The most recent White House proposals slash the agency’s budget from $14 billion today to $11.6 billion in the year 2000, and some of that money is certain to come from the shuttle program, whose per-mission cost and staffing are already down 40 percent from 1991 levels. “We’ve got to find ways to do more with fewer dollars and fewer people,” says a veteran of the JSC, which brought $1.07 billion in contracts and grants to Texas last year. If NASA is to fend off charges that the nation can no longer afford ambitious projects in space, it has to prove the shuttle can fly safely, cheaply, and on schedule.

History has shown that this is no easy task. “When we started, we thought the only reason to have a shuttle was because we were planning a space station, and we wanted a reusable transportation system,” says Max A. Faget, a former director of engineering and development at the JSC who holds the patent on an early version of the shuttle. “The idea was that it would be much cheaper in the long run than expendable rockets.” But NASA soon found that the military, the commercial satellite industry, and other interests were eager to expand the shuttle’s scope, so it became an all-purpose spacecraft: satellite launcher, spy plane, flying laboratory, cargo vessel. With an expanded mission, however, came an expanded cost. Early estimates of less than $20 million per launch quickly proved unrealistic. The shuttle today costs an average of nearly $400 million per mission, and since 1971 the shuttle program has spent $64 billion. Even so, the shuttle has hardly been a workhorse. Although fifty flights a year were once predicted, the shuttle program has never exceeded 1985’s nine flights. Indeed, only 51 missions have been flown since the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Clearly, Challenger had an enormous impact on the program. After the shuttle exploded, the military decided the vehicle was too unreliable and switched much of its payload to expendable rockets. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration ordered that the shuttle could be used only “for missions that require human presence or other unique shuttle capabilities.” That knocked out commercial satellites and most private-sector payloads. “We ended up with science payloads and human spaceflight stuff,” explains shuttle program manager Tommy Holloway. “During the last few years, the missions have been sort of repetitive.”

Challenger’s legacy haunts the agency in another way. In March, shuttle director Bryan O’Connor—an ex–shuttle astronaut—quit in protest of the reorganization that increased the JSC’s autonomy over the shuttle and the space station. “I felt like it was adding a layer of risk that wasn’t necessary,” says O’Connor, who fears the miscommunication and rivalry between NASA field centers and the JSC that contributed to the Challenger accident could resurface. (“I think we have a very robust and safe program,” counters Steve Oswald, a NASA deputy associate administrator—and former shuttle astronaut—who took over many of O’Connor’s duties.)

O’Connor is just one in a long line of shuttle directors—seven in all—who have spent an average of less than 24 months on the job since Challenger. “That’s an extraordinary turnover,” says Faget. “I think they’ve got management and leadership problems,” asserts Hans Mark, a former deputy administrator of NASA who teaches aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. As evidence, critics cite frequent policy changes, such as flip-flopping on whether to rely more heavily on civil servants or private contractors; the more than $1 billion spent on a manufacturing plant to develop a new solid rocket motor that was scrapped; and a costly plan to build a shuttle upper stage that was also scrapped. The worst of the policy miscues saw $3.2 billion squandered on a California launch center for the military in the mid-eighties.

Part of the management instability is a function of demographics. Many NASA managers are near retirement age; in fact, 30 percent of JSC employees are eligible to retire, which is astonishing given the agency’s aggressive early retirement campaigns. While some within NASA contend that trimming budgets and payrolls is constructive, the changing of the guard is a double-edged sword. “An awful lot of experience is going out the door,” warns Wallace T. Fowler, a professor of aerospace engineering at UT-Austin. And because many of those veterans are not being replaced, NASA may not be building a sufficient staff for the next century. “You don’t get the bright, energetic kids,” Holloway frets. “You don’t get their computer skills.”

In the end, questions about the shuttle’s future will be answered by how well the agency implements its cost-saving initiatives. One of the biggest measures—with a proposed savings of hundreds of millions—calls for the production, assembly, and operation of the shuttle fleet to be handed over to a private contractor, the United Space Alliance, whose headquarters is down the street from the JSC. A joint venture between aerospace giants Rockwell and Lockheed Martin, the Alliance is part of an overall effort to transfer routine operations to the private sector and allow NASA to concentrate on research and development.

But the real key to the shuttle program may be the International Space Station. “Building a space station is the kind of thing that’s fun, exciting, and challenging,” says Holloway, but it’s also a complicated process with an uncertain outcome. Take the contribution of the Russians. The space station depends on a Russian-made service module to provide propulsion and life-support systems. Yet the private contractors in Russia who are building it say they’re not getting paid by the Russian government. If the Russians don’t deliver, says space station program manager Randy Brinkley, NASA may have to find another $2 billion it doesn’t have, which could force the agency to reconsider the entire enterprise. Brinkley is surprisingly forthright about the gravity of the situation: “The fate of the station,” he says, “is going to make or break the manned spaceflight program in this country.”