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NASA visionaries set their sights on the moon and Mars. Step-by-step plans could lead to outposts in space

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That's when the country will be deciding whether to actually develop a space vehicle that can take off and land like an airplane, go with some other rocket-powered system, or do both.

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It would cost only a few hundred million dollars over the next decade to gain knowledge to help make decisions on billions of dollars worth of development, Mr. Loftus says.

He adds that what probably will be needed by the year 2000 is an unmanned system for orbiting bulk payloads -- 200,000 to 400,000 pounds -- very cheaply, plus a manned vehicle less costly to operate than the present shuttle. This is the kind of capability the new Soviet space-shuttle system seems to be aimed at developing.

It is not known how cheap the Soviet system will be to operate. But, to judge from what is known publicly, it includes a small lightweight space plane that would carry two or three cosmonauts.

A larger manned orbiter about the size of the US shuttle may begin atmospheric flight tests this year.

There's also an unmanned version that could orbit about 200,000 pounds of cargo. These craft, presumably, could be used in conjunction with the Mir permanently manned space station as it is developed and enlarged.

If building an orbital infrastructure makes so much sense in its own right, why talk about 21st-century moon mines and Mars bases?

Paine argues that such long-range vision helps keep current planning on a more fruitful track. He notes that ``the high likelihood of permanently occupying Luna and Mars in the next century suggests that resources should not be expended on one-shot `Apollo'-type manned expeditions.'' He urges that near-Earth space development be open-ended. It would be wasteful, he says, to put up an orbital infrastructure that our grandchildren would have to scrap and replace when they wanted to move farther out in space.

Professor Logsdon points out that, while such vision can be a useful guide, it's difficult to incorporate it in formal national policy.

``Politicians are accountable for what they're doing now. They can't commit to long-range goals except in general terms,'' he explains.

Soviet officials seem more comfortable discussing their space program as a stairway to the planets than do US presidents. Yet, Logsdon notes, ``Even the Soviets do it only in general terms. You don't see a [public] report like this with detailed timetables and cost estimates.''

Meanwhile, the Soviet space program has already gone a long way toward fulfilling a prophecy made by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment three years ago: ``If they succeed in bringing all these plans to fruition [permanent space station, operational shuttle, lightweight space plane], the Soviets will have acquired a very capable space infrastructure which could be used, not only for operations in orbit, but also as an important element in the conduct of expeditions, with or without people, to the moon and the planets.''

That sounds like a scenario right out of the Paine report.

The difference is that the Americans are still talking about it; the Soviets are doing it.

Eighth of 10 articles. Next: An embattled NASA.