Suddenly, the nation that put the first man on the moon almost 17 years ago, the nation that built the first reusable spaceship, was reduced to being a mere bystander.
America lost its dominance in space in a flash: the horrific Jan. 28 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger just 73 seconds into flight, killing its crew of seven.
NASA's three remaining shuttles will be grounded for at least a year, along with important scientific and military payloads and a new generation of communications satellites, because there is no conventional, throwaway rocket brawny enough to lift them anymore. With the shuttle, such rockets were considered technological dinosaurs, and they had been phased out.
Instead of exploring the heavens, NASA was having to plumb the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, searching for Challenger's shattered wreckage and the remains of its seven-member crew.
With the Challenger disaster, the "right-stuff" reputation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been shattered, too. Its managers have found their wisdom sharply questioned by the presidential
commission investigating the explosion, and they have seemed defensive and defiant.
"They've just looked terrible in this thing," said Alex Roland, the agency's former in-house historian and now a professor at Duke University.
Technologically, he said, "the United States is still a full generation ahead of any space-faring nation. NASA has policy problems, not technical problems. Their management botched it, and they're ruining NASA's image."
When the Challenger explosion occurred, NASA's director, who has since resigned, was under indictment for alleged misconduct while working earlier for a defense contracting company. The agency's acting director was inexperienced, on the job for only a week.
To shore up management, President Reagan brought back James C. Fletcher, known as a strong administrator when he ran NASA between 1971 and 1977. But Fletcher, who still must be confirmed by the Senate, has been criticized for supporting the shuttle in the first place, to the detriment of scientific and conventional rocketry research.
The tremendous cost of the enormously complex shuttle, $30 billion over 14 years and counting, with little chance of ever making a profit, meant the United States had no money to send its own satellite to explore Halley's comet.
And the commission hearings have shown that NASA's problems went beyond the the man at the top; it was the system. The agency's decentralized decision-making process was described as "clearly flawed" by William P.
Rogers, the chairman of the commission.
Mid-level NASA managers misconstrued warnings from key shuttle contractors about the dangers of cold weather and did not tell superiors or the shuttle crew of those concerns. (It was 38 degrees, and had been 24 the previous night.)
But the NASA officials who decided on launch continued boasting of their ''outstanding judgment" even after the explosion. They argued that they were following established regulations and would do little different, in hindsight.
"Don't you have to use common sense?" asked Rogers. Fletcher, for his part has accused the commission of embarking on a "witch hunt," raising doubts about whether he will clean house.
In the weeks following the explosion, other vaunted agency attributes stood exposed as exaggerated, if not mythical.
NASA's "can-do" spirit came to be seen as an imprudent rush to launch and maintain an ambitious 1986 schedule of 16 flights, still far fewer than Fletcher had promised when he was touting the shuttle in the 1970s.
"When do you want me to launch, next April?" asked NASA manager Lawrence B. Mulloy, impatient with a recommendation for delay made by the engineers at Morton Thiokol Inc. who built the shuttle's solid-fuel rocket boosters and knew best how they might operate.
Even as Challenger soared off the launch pad, some Thiokol engineers worriedly discussed the likelihood of a catastrophic failure because the cold weather might impair vital seals, known as O-rings, between the rockets' segments. "It was eerie," said one.
Investigators now believe that super-hot gas from solid fuel, burning at 5,800 degrees, bored through the vital seals on the right booster and pierced the booster's steel casing - a scenairo reinforced by new pictures and computer studies presented Friday to the presidential commission.
The space agency's oft-invoked "team work" also seemed to have dissolved in the wake of the shuttle explosion. Rocketry engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., who bore the brunt of the commission's criticism for challenging the cold-weather warnings, suggested that workers at the Kennedy Space Center here had damaged the O-ring seals on Challenger's right rocket booster while wrestling to mate two of its segments.
Kennedy engineers, who had to use a hydraulic device to squeeze one of the cylindrical segments into place before the launch, vehemently denied the charge.
Last week, Marshall and Kennedy engineers argued over how best to disassemble a solid rocket booster hitched to the shuttle Atlantis, according to sources here. One of its segments also was squeezed into place, and the engineers want to see if its O-rings were damaged.
Marshall engineers also kept bickering with the Thiokol engineers over whether tests with miniature motors and a seal mockup proved that cold kept the O-rings from working properly.
"Marshall has never had a particularly appealing image," said Duke professor Roland. After World War II, scientists who developed the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany, led by Werner von Braun, developed America's rocketry program there.
"They have a bunker mentality. Nobody tells them what to do. They're tightlipped and secretive," Roland said.
Other instances of dissension at NASA surfaced when chief astronaut John W. Young accused the agency in scathing memos of recklessly risking the lives of the 95-member astronaut corps.
A senior space manager for the Air Force, Col. Richard L. Griffin, struck back, telling Young in a letter that he was "unprofessional" and such a tyrant that other astronauts feared to "cross" him. Griffin's twin brother, Gerald, until recently was the director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In retrospect, the doomed flight of Challenger seemed more a sign of NASA's hubris than anything else. A 1983 Air Force study, relayed to NASA, said there was a 1 in 35 chance of a catastrophic accident involving the shuttle's solid rocket boosters.
Critics said taking schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe along was a public relations stunt aimed at keeping congressional dollars flowing.
But NASA said her presence would show that soaring into space on top of a rocket was no longer the preserve of daring test pilots but could be done by ''ordinary people," as McAuliffe often put it.
After the explosion, astronaut Henry Hartsfield said that notion was mistaken. The shuttle, he said, should still be considered a research and development project and fraught with danger.
"You recognize . . . that there's risk involved with flying the shuttle," Hartsfield said, "and it's primarily because you're sitting on all that energy there - you're sitting on over 4 million pounds of propellant and you're depending on a very carefully controlled release of all that stored energy to get you from resting on the pad to almost orbital speed in 8 1/2 minutes."
The short flight of Challenger, he said, "gave you a vivid demonstration of what can happen if that controlled release goes wrong. It is one big explosion."
By gambling on the multi-purpose shuttle as the sole vehicle for launching satellites, NASA has ended up throwing away a virtual monopoly in the once- lucrative business of launching private communications satellites.
Delays in the shuttle's development led the European Space Agency to develop a conventional rocket, the Ariane, and compete aggressively with the shuttle. The Giotto satellite was launched from a base in French Guiana by the Ariane, and during the last year, the European rocket has started to match the shuttle in satellite-launchings.
One reason for Ariane's success has been that it was able to insert communications satellites directly into geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above Earth. At that height, they move through space at the same speed that Earth rotates, and thus seem to hover. Signals can be easily relayed back and forth to our planet.
The shuttle, by contrast, dumps satellites into low-Earth orbit, about 200 miles up. Then a booster rocket on the satellite must push them to the proper height. But several such boosters have failed, sending more business to Ariane.
This happened despite the fact that Ariane is less reliable than either of the workhorse American rockets, the Delta and Atlas-Centaur, which have success rates of roughly 94 percent and were long the mainstays of the satellite-launch business.
Thirteen of 16 Arianes, or 81 percent, have worked properly so far. A 17th, bearing American and Brazilian communications satellites, was stalled on its launch pad Wednesday night by a mechanical malfunction. The last 43 Deltas, by contrast, were launched successfully.
Now, the Soviets, with their Proton rocket, and even the People's Republic of China, with the Long March rocket, are on the verge of joining the competition.
Meanwhile, American research in solid rocketry has suffered. And the space shuttle is the reason.