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Politics puts people in orbit

By Robert C. CowenStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 1986


It was a butter-smooth launch. I brought up the telemetry for the shuttle main engines on a spare monitor screen. This time, there was no suspicious drop in oxygen pressure such as that preceding the Challenger accident. Mission 61-G, carrying the Galileo Jupiter probe into its initial Earth orbit, was safely on its way.

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This was only a simulation. But veterans of the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) at the Johnson Space Center here took it as seriously as the real thing as they honed their skills for the time when shuttles once again fly.

A visit to the ``Moker'' sharpens one's awareness of a central question the United States faces as it struggles to reshape its space program: whether the country should be putting people in orbit at all when most ``practical'' space activities are better carried out with unmanned rocketry. And if human beings really are needed in space at this time, what should they be doing there?

As you enter the Moker, you pass two minicomputers nicknamed Kirk and Uhura, after two ``Star Trek'' characters. Is this just the whimsy of clearsighted professionals with well-founded faith in humanity's future? Or is it indicative of what manned spaceflight critic James A. Van Allen of the University of Iowa calls ``the misty-eyed concept that the manifest destiny of mankind is to live and work in space.''

In a plea to put the manned spaceflight program on ice, recently published in Science magazine, he blames this concept for ``the dissipation and misdirection of our immense technical and human resources on enterprises that appeal to persons of a science-fiction mind-set.''

America's manned-spaceflight policy has vacillated somewhere between these extreme views, with no clear consensus, since the Apollo moon program ended in the early 1970s.

Then, as now, eminent space scientist Van Allen argued for postponing manned flight as a premature adventure. He feared that funding shuttle development would starve other space efforts, especially science -- a concern that proved to be prophetic. Then, as now, visionaries such as Thomas Paine (who chairs the National Commission on Space) argued for an outer-space manifest destiny.

But policy analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University points out that you can't base national policy on emotional extremes. ``To say the destiny of mankind is to leave the planet does not set national priorities. You either believe that, or you don't,'' he says.

Likewise, to argue for postponing manned spaceflight altogether ignores the global context in which national policy must be planned. The Soviets are pushing ahead with their space station. The European Space Agency has said it would go ahead with a manned program, too, even if the US dropped the space-station project in which the ESA now participates.

Thus Professor Logsdon and many other space experts emphasize that the principal reasons for an US manned spaceflight program today are political: leadership, prestige, and development of capabilities whose future practicality has to be taken largely on faith. It was foolishly wishful to sell the shuttle as an economically effective access to space, Logsdon says. And it would be equally wishful to try to sell the space station on economic grounds today.