Politics puts people in orbit

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.

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.

In lobbying for the original shuttle program, James C. Fletcher -- who then, as now, was administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) -- explained: ``The United States cannot forgo its responsibility -- to itself and to the free world -- to have a part in manned spaceflight. . . . For the US not to be in space, while others do have men in space, is unthinkable, and a position which America cannot accept.'' Dr. Fletcher and other advocates of the space-station program make the same argument today.

President Reagan, in mandating space-station development, has indicated that he recognizes this political necessity just as did President Nixon when he approved the shuttle program. But that latter approval did not mobilize a national consensus as to what the nation should do with its new spaceflight capability or what larger goals this should serve. Neither Nixon nor his successors, Presidents Ford and Carter, provided leadership on the issue.

As a result, says Ray Williamson of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), NASA concentrated on means -- developing the shuttle -- rather than the ends to which the shuttle would be used.

``Putting the shuttle into an operational mode became an end in itself,'' he explains. He adds that this led to ``the decision to rely solely on the shuttle for launch service,'' which has effectively grounded the US space program after the Challenger accident.

Mr. Williamson, who participated in several OTA space-policy studies, explains that without agreed goals, the country drifted into the shuttle program with unrealistic expectations. It tried to develop an all-purpose launch vehicle with inadequate funding. Now, Williamson sees the same thing happening with the space station unless the administration lays out a manned spaceflight policy with realistic goals and provides the leadership to build a consensus for them.

A recently released National Commission on Space report provides a framework in which to debate such goals. Its detailed proposal of step-by-step development of an orbital manned-flight infrastructure, including a space station, would give the US a strong presence in Earth orbit and a versatile base for industrial research.

But the study also says that such projects would have to be undertaken for reasons of national and international leadership, prestige, and faith in space as a promising new frontier. There would be no guarantee of dramatic economic payoffs within this century. And it could turn out to be more costly than the administration would like at this time of budget stringency.

``Manned spaceflight is alive and well,'' says Ivan Beckey, director of advanced programs in NASA's Office of Space Flight. ``Its fundamental importance is still there -- opening new frontiers, exploring, extending ourselves.'' But, he warns, ``The price will be more accidents, because we can't have a risk-free program, and it will cost more dollars.''

Back in the Moker, controllers -- some of whom helped guide men to the moon and back -- share the vision of the National Commission on Space that ``space technology has freed humankind to move outward from Earth as a species destined to expand to other worlds.''

The men and women here and the spaceflight potential they represent are a major asset. Their existence challenges the US to make up its national mind as to what it wants to do: develop that asset for greater usefulness or let it wither by failing to give it a sustainable purpose.

``As awful as the shuttle disaster was, it certainly has made possible the kind of searching review that's needed,'' says Williamson. ``In that sense, it's opened a broad new opportunity.''

Second of 10 articles. Tomorrow: The scientists' lament.

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