NOW that Sally Ride's study team has given its assessment of space goals to the chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the White House and Congress must act. The United States can't afford to let its space program continue without direction. This has allowed the Soviet Union to become the leader in space largely by default. The Soviets would be a space power in any event. But with the US program in disarray and Western Europe and Japan not yet in the same league, there is no one to match growing Soviet prowess.
The Soviets' steady march toward what appears to be their goal of building general competence in all aspects of spaceflight has already advanced a long way. The United States' start-stop efforts - which have never had a consistent overarching goal - have produced a number of brilliant but largely dead-end achievements. Even the highly successful planetary exploration program flounders for lack of commitment to a long-range plan, such as the one developed by the National Academy of Sciences' Space Science Board half a decade ago.
The National Commission on Space said all this in the report it gave President Reagan a little over a year ago. It urged a coherent program aimed at achieving general space competence and guided by the overall goal of developing ``the space frontier.'' This would include extensive activity in earth orbit, mining asteroids, a permanent base on the moon, and manned exploration of Mars. Now, in response to the NASA administrator's request, the Ride panel has evaluated such goals.
It wisely warns against a go-for-broke attempt to land astronauts on Mars or any other ``one-shot foray or political stunt'' that, like the old Apollo moon program, would be dead-ended. It urges a balanced program, including extensive study to understand our own planet's environment as well as exploring the solar system. It would advance toward Mars expeditions by first learning to operate lunar outposts. It warns that NASA needs to overcome the shortcomings revealed after the Challenger accident - including the need to rebuild a launch rocket fleet - to reach for such larger objectives.
This is the kind of direction the United States space program badly needs. But, as Dr. Ride points out, NASA can't set such goals alone, although it can and must lead the discussion.
The responsibility now lies with President Reagan and his team to pursue this discussion vigorously and come up with a program that can reasonably be expected to have long-term support. This should not be left to the Office of Management and Budget, where space priorities have been sorted out in recent years. It demands top-level attention.