The US space program is floundering at a time when foreign competition is on the rise.
This threatens the United States with ''loss of significant revenue opportunities'' in the increasingly lucrative space business ''as well as potential loss of prestige and influence.''
So warns the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in a massive study of the civilian space effort.
As the OTA sees it, the basic problem is ''lack of consistent long-term goals and clear policy initiatives.'' Neither the country as a whole nor the federal government in particular knows what it wants the space program to accomplish. The roles of private industry, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and other agencies, including the Department of Defense (DOD), are also unclear.
The resulting muddle saps the space program's vitality, the OTA says. Yet, it warns, the country has never been in greater need of a vigorous, coherent effort. It sums up the challenge by explaining:
''When the US Space Program began, the Soviet Union was our only competitor in space. The Sovietshave never challenged our leadership in space applications. Now, however, international competition in space applications is a reality. The Europeans and the Japanese have targeted specific space technologies for development, and they will soon be providing stiff competition for services heretofore offered only by the United States.''
These technologies and services fall mainly into three fields -- communications satellites, earth resource surveys from orbit, and satellite launch facilities (now called space transportation). Looking to the future, the field of materials processing in space may blossom into yet another area of competition.
The OTA's warning will surprise no one with a specific interest in any of these fields. Supporters have been raising this alarm for several years. These advocates include NASA officials and presidential science adviser George Keyworth, who is conducting his own comprehensive study of space policy. Similar concern for the space program as a whole has likewise been expressed in many quarters.
Thus, the OTA has not called attention to an unrecognized danger. What it has done is to spell out the details of the challenge and trace their evolution in a document which it says it hopes will contribute to a badly needed national space policy debate.
The study makes clear how complex the challenge is. There is no simple reason -- such as budget cutting or overemphasis on shuttle development -- that has led to the lack of a national policy. Instead, the country finds itself in need of reassessment because its needs in space have evolved beyond a straight-forward effort to build up a capability for civilian and military space activity.
That was clearly an effort in which the federal government had to take the lead and meet most of the cost. During the 1970's, however, much space activity has been turned over to private industry and to operating agencies such as DOD. It no longer is clear at all who should lead and who should bear research, development, and operating costs.
Industry has assumed most of the burden in the communications satellite field. Yet, as foreign competitors in partnership with their governments push ahead with development of advanced satellites, US industry is again asking NASA to take a leadership role.
In the field of remote earth sensing satellites, the administration would like to turn responsibility over to private industry after the final NASA satellite is launched later this year. Industry already is handling much of the ground processing and distribution of the data. But it feels ill-equipped to assume the full cost of the satellites themselves. Moreover, the field is international, since the satellites operate globally. Only the federal government can take on the diplomatic tasks international coordination involves.
Then there is the question of who should operate the Space Transportation System, as the shuttle is officially called. NASA administrator James Beggs resists the notion that NASA should become an operating agency rather than continue to pioneer new technologies. However, industry is not equipped to assume the costs and liabilities of the shuttle, though companies do offer operating services on the spacecraft under government contract.
Meanwhile, the OTA notes, Europe and Japan are preparing to sell earth survey satellite services. And, with its Ariane launch rocket, Europe is taking some space transportation business away from the shuttle.
Thus, the OTA assessment boils down to the conclusion that the United States has an overriding need for a new space vision, for a national consensus on what it wants to do in space and how to do it. It needs, the report says, ''a multirepresentative forum to discuss and recommend comprehensive long-term goals.''
As an analytical agency for Congress, the OTA cannot make recommendations for policy or action. But it suggests that a special presidential commission in which Congress participates could help meet this need.