Future US space explorations at stake in comet flyby proposal

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AMERICAN space science is in a crisis. If new funding and new projects are not forthcoming soon, the vitality of a scientific enterprise that once led the world could be lost. That's the message the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences and NASA's own Space and Earth Sciences Advisory Committee (SESAC) will soon send to the administration.

Yet even as these groups finish their reports, signs of hope have begun to appear.

Space scientists had been disappointed when NASA failed to include a long-awaited comet mission in the budget for fiscal 1987, which began Oct. 1. But, since then, the agency has published a list of possible experiments for that mission with an eye to launching the spacecraft in late 1992. This raises hope that start-up money will appear in the fiscal 1989 budget that President Reagan sends to the new Congress next year.

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Called CRAF (Comet Rendezvous and Asteroid Flyby), the mission is to intercept Comet Tempel-2. It will fly alongside the comet, observing how it changes as it nears the Sun, and will fire a penetrator into the comet nucleus. It will also scan the asteroids Malautre and Hestia while enroute to Tempel-2.

NASA has also announced the United States team that will join Japan's SOLAR-A mission to study the Sun's X-ray and gamma ray emissions. It involves one of a series of small satellites to be launched into low Earth orbit from the Kagoshima Space Center during August and September of 1991. The instruments are to point continuously at the Sun during the three-year project.

Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science invited American participation through NASA. A team led by Loren W. Acton of the Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratory won the competition. It will supply the optics and detector for an X-ray telescope. While this is not a NASA program, the agency's support for the American team does help keep US space scientists going.

Selection of possible studies for the CRAF mission is an even more welcome sign. This is one of four main missions in the core program laid out in 1983 by the Solar System Exploration Committee (SSEC) of the NASA Advisory Council. The other missions include the Magellan (Venus radar mapper) and the Mars Observer, which are already authorized, and a mission to Saturn's atmosphere-bearing moon Titan, not yet funded.

The SSEC considers this core program the minimum activity needed to maintain the vitality of US space science. As Burton I. Edelson, NASA associated administrator for space science and applications, told American scientists in a ``Dear Colleague'' letter last September, the Challenger accident had ``a severe impact'' on all such plans. Now, in making the new CRAF announcement, Edelson affirmed that ``it signifies NASA's commitment to the [SSEC] planetary exploration strategy.''

There's more than a comet visit at stake. CRAF will use a new kind of spacecraft -- Mariner Mark II -- whose basic design can serve many purposes. This will cut the cost of developing a new spacecraft for every new mission. The Soviets are already using this money-saving concept. The two Soviet craft to be launched in 1988 to study the Martian moon Phobos are of a multipurpose design that can even be adapted for landing on a planet.

Here again, Edelson emphasized that NASA's commitment to CRAF is a commitment to the Mariner Mark II concept. Taken together with Magellan and Mars Observer, this symbolizes ``our commitment to a strong program in planetary science and exploration,'' he said.

That should please NASA's SESAC. It considers CRAF ``a mission of outstanding scientific importance.'' In order to maintain momentum in US space science after the Challenger accident, the committee had urged NASA, among other things, to make CRAF payload assignments as soon as possible and to develop the Mariner Mark II.

As noted, SESAC and the National Academy of Sciences Space Science Board, at this writing, were about to send strongly worded reports to the administration. They will particularly note that encouraging ``commitments,'' such as those proclaimed by Edelson, are worthless unless backed by adequate funding.

NASA administrator James Fletcher has indicated he wants to use the fiscal 1989 budget to begin to set new initiatives for the space program. Failure to do so would thoroughly dishearten the US space science community. Yet a few carefully chosen projects, such as CRAF and development of the Mariner Mark II vehicle, would give American space science new life.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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