The United States is approaching a critical juncture in outer space. What happens over the next six months will provide important clues as to whether Americans, after dramatic early achievements highlighted by putting man on the Moon, have now lost sight of the stars -- and the challenges and opportunities space holds for this and future generations.
Next month's scheduled Voyager 1 flyby of the planet Saturn will signal the beginning of the end of America's long-running program of planetary probes which in recent years have measurably increased what we earthlings know about such heretofore little-known neighbors as Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. Beyond the companion Voyager 2 flyby of Saturn in August of next year there are no major planetary probes planned.
The Russians, meanwhile, continue to push ahead with their manned space program. Although the US retains a technology lead, the record 185 days in orbit set by cosmonauts Leonid Popov and Valery Ryumin over the weekend provides a dramatic reminder that the Soviets are far out front of the US (with its 84 -day endurance record set in 1974) in the number of man- hours devoted to conducting experiments and learning to adapt to long stays in space. In short, the Soviets are making steady progress toward establishing a permanent manned space station in orbit. It would be a pity if it took such an event -- another Sputnik-like shock -- to reawaken Americans to the need to revitalize their own space program.
Poised with considerable new scientific knowledge already in hand and the promise of still greater breakthroughs within reach, the US planetary program is in danger of being left to drift in a sea of official indifference. Confronted with a national economy that demands tough budgetary decisions, recent administrations understandably have been reluctant to expand spending on space. The benefits of space research, although enormous, tend to be long-term and thus harder to justify to constituents in the short run. In the face of such choices , it will take new vision and strong leadership in Washington to keep the US in the forefront of exploring mankind's last great frontier.
Officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are hanging their hopes on next March's oft-delayed launching of the reusable space shuttle, which is heralded as opening a new era in space travel. They already see hints of renewed public interest in space. The next logical evolutionary step in manned space exploration, the shuttle is seen as advancing space travel beyond the experimental stage and for the first time giving humans the capability of working and building in space. The hold of the shuttle will carry virtually any cargo a business firm or a government agency wants to send aloft. Already booked far in advance, the shuttle will provide a basic transportation system for the hoped-for eventual construction of permanent orbiting space stations, solar energy generating plants, and gravity-free manufacturing facilities.
Even if, as NASA hopes, the shuttle succeeds in reviving public interest in space -- and reassuring the world that the US still has the technological know-how it demonstrated in the glory days of Apollo -- it is far from clear how large a role NASA itself will play in future space exploration. The Defense Department is assuming an ever larger role; the Air Force already has taken one-third of the shuttle's advanced bookings. It would be a tragic turn of events if military considerations were to become the primary driving force behind future space ventures. There can be little doubt that space technology will be needed to help provide solutions to world energy, environmental, and food problems. But after the shuttle, will NASA be relegated to serving as little more than a transportation or shipping agency for private communications firms and the military? Or will the R & D expertise of NASA be used, for instance, to tap the potentially unlimited reservoir of solar energy that exists outside earth's atmosphere to meet the growing demand for energy?
Moreover, it should be kept in mind that the prospective laying-off of skilled NASA employees once the current projects are completed will leave the agency ill prepared to assume a larger role later on. Once its experienced technicians and engineers find new positions outside the space agency, reassembling a team with comparable experience will be much more difficult.
The lack of enthusiasm in the White House and on Capitol Hill for spending more on the civilian space program is reflected in the $5.2 billion NASA budget for 1981, virtually unchanged from its 1980 budget or, for that matter, not that much larger than the $4 billion NASA spent in 1969, the year Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. With inflation and the decreased value of the dollar taken into account, that amounts to a sharp reduction since 1969.
The spinoffs of space exploration already are paying huge dividends in advances in computer technology, electronics, and countless other fields that touch the lives of all Americans. Scientific breakthroughs on the horizon hold out the promise of further increasing our understanding of our own planet -- its weather, environment, geology, and oceans and how they evolved -- as well as shedding valuable new light on how we fit into the universe around us. The possibilities seem limitless -- certainly too vast to allow the space program to continue its current drift.