President Reagan's space-station initiative, outlined in his State of the Union address, gives badly needed direction to the US manned space flight program. National Aeronautics and Space Administration planners have been in a holding pattern, wondering whether and in what direction to take the next logical step into space. The country cannot afford to continue with this uncertainty.
However, if this ambitious move is truly to open up ''America's next frontier ,'' it has to be done right this time. From the start, realistic cost estimates must be made and adequate funds provided. Major problems were created when that was not done during development of the last big space step, the reusable shuttle.
Cost overruns on the shuttle project absorbed so much of NASA's budget that the US's highly successful planetary exploration and space-science programs were crippled.
Faced with the tight budgets that followed the moon program, NASA managers of the shuttle project settled for cost estimates that were politically feasible rather than realistic. This ensured subsequent budget overruns. Other troubles stemmed directly from such expediency.
This must not be allowed to happen again. The administration and Congress should ensure that the space station program is adequately funded - and that NASA's overall budget provides, too, for a strong space-science program.
It would be better to stretch out the goal of orbiting the station in a decade than to cripple the program at the outset with unrealistically low support.
In terms of United States engineering capability, the ten-year goal is realistic. The uncertainty is whether or not it is realistic politically. Whatever program Congress eventually approves, it should be one the country is likely to sustain on a bipartisan basis.