ONE year ago, the explosion of the Challenger jolted the space program onto the front pages of public consciousness and united a nation around its television screens, where it once had watched the triumphs of the Mercury astronauts. A year later, where is NASA? and where are we?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has had a thorough housecleaning. Its administrator, its associate administrator, and its three space center chiefs have all been replaced. A new position of associate administrator for safety has been created; five astronauts appear at the top levels of the organizational chart of NASA where there were none before. And the NASA administrator is once again the highly regarded James C. Fletcher, who held the position once before, during NASA's glory days, and has been brought back to put the agency's house in order.
The hardware problems with the solid rocket booster, where the explosion occurred, have been confronted - along with, as Dr. Fletcher puts it, ``a hundred or so other items'' that needed attention and could get it while the whole system was shut down.
Fletcher is officially optimistic about NASA's being on track for a space shuttle launch in February 1988; it is safe to say, though, that nothing like the overambitious earlier shuttle launch schedule is likely to be attempted. One lesson of the Challenger tragedy was the realization that the space program hasn't come as far as we thought it had. Despite its name, with its suggestion of routine, the space shuttle is still closer to the Mercury program than to the airline service along the Boston-Washington Corridor.
But not unlike that busy air corridor, NASA is facing a traffic jam of its own: not enough launch vehicles available for all the missions it is eager to proceed with, such as a year-long unmanned exploration of Jupiter. Paradoxically, it is the hugely successful unmanned space science projects that have been most affected by the Challenger disaster. There is also not enough money for the kind of human presence in space that NASA would like.
NASA has felt a huge outpouring of public support in the past year, as have, in a more personal way, the astronaut families.
But the United States still has some distance to go in building a public consensus on a national role in space. The US is a different country now from what it was when President Kennedy announced the goal of putting a man on the moon. The technical problems of spaceflight seem less daunting than some of the other challenges facing society today.
Whatever consensus on space policy is ultimately reached, it is clear that space exploration cannot be a matter of routine. There must be a willingness to go at problems as they come up, and a commitment to heed warnings, from however humble a source. If the US is going to continue to ``do space'' - and we believe it must - it must be done right.