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Rumors are blasting off that Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, might just have the right stuff to become the new NASA administrator.

His name tops some lists in the Washington rumor mills of possible candidates to replace current Administrator James Fletcher, a former University of Utah president who has said he plans to leave after a replacement is found.But Garn told the Deseret News that he has more down-to-earth plans, namely remaining in the Senate to fight for the space program there - and maybe even to fight for Cabinet-level status and access for whoever does become the administrator.

Garn, who once flew on the space shuttle Discovery as a congressional observer, said, "Even if the job were offered, I would not accept.

"I can do more good for the space program as a senior member of the Senate than as the administrator. I probably spend a third of my time on space, science and technology."

Garn said the first he had heard of the rumors was through a phone call from the Deseret News. He said he also has had no contact with anyone from the Bush administration about the possibility.

But the speculation about him had been circulating this week at least among the Florida and Alabama congressional delegations. They are especially concerned about NASA because of the Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Some in those offices say that with the Atlantis

mission this week, NASA now has had two near-perfect space shuttle flights - showing that current administrator Fletcher used his technical expertise to accomplish his goal of safely returning his agency to space after the Challenger disaster.

But they say the next administrator must also have extensive political skills to combat what Jeff Bingham, Garn's administrative assistant, calls the "largely unrealized funding crisis at NASA."

Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the only other congressional observer to fly on a space shuttle, released a statement about who he thinks has such political and administrative skills.

"I would suggest someone like Sen. Jake Garn," Nelson said - high praise from a Democrat.

Nelson outlined for the Gannett News Service the skills he felt the new administrator should have - and which he said Garn possesses.

"The new administrator should be someone who is politically well connected so that he has access to the Oval Office and senior White House staff," Nelson said.

"He also must have a good rapport with Congress. He should have a talent for picking talented people to help run a research and development agency and certainly should have a strong background in the space field."

Others mentioned as possibilities by various congressional staff and observers include Martin Marietta Aerospace Corp. executive Norman Augustine; J.R. Thompson, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center; Robert Crippen, former astronaut and deputy director of shuttle operations; and Sally Ride, physicist and first American woman in space.

Also under consideration are Frank Borman, former astronaut and former president of Eastern Airlines; William Graham, science adviser to President Reagan and former NASA administrator; Thomas Paine, former NASA administrator; Jim McDivitt, former astronaut now with Rockwell International; and David Webb, chairman of the University of North Dakota's Space Studies Department.

Of those names, Garn said he knows Crippen and Ride well and said they would do fine but that Crippen had more administrative experience. He said he was unfamiliar or had only casual acquaintances with most of the others.

Some in Washington have said that finding an administrator may not be easy with funding problems the agency faces and its loss of prestige after the Challenger disaster, but Garn is not among them.

"NASA is still in my opinion one of the premier agencies of the federal government and has the greatest collection of scientific minds the government has ever employed. Despite the Challenger accident, there's still a lot of people who would love to have that job and are very well qualified," Garn said.

He said whoever gets the job should be given more free access to the president. "Ask Fletcher; I think he would tell you he has much less access now than when he was administrator in the '70s. The administrator has to work through an aide who may not know that much, and it is frustrating."

Garn even suggests putting the NASA administrator in charge of a Cabinet-level Department of Space, Sciences and Technology to oversee better American competition in science and space.

He said the high rank for such a department is not frivolous "when you consider the importance of the technological base of this country to our pre-eminence in the world and how we are losing it to Japan, West Germany and the Soviet Union."

He said that issue is at least as important as those overseen by the departments of Veterans Affairs, Interior and Commerce - "and maybe even more important as far as looking toward the future of our country and where we are in relation to the world," he said.

Bingham, Garn's administrative assistant, said that raising the NASA administrator to Cabinet level could also make it easier to attract high-level officials - such as senators or corporate presidents - to the job.