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Manned Spaceflight: Let's Clean the Slate

SCIENCE COMMENTARY

By ROBERT C. COWEN / August 29, 1989



IT'S time for Congress, the Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to seriously rethink the United States manned spaceflight program. They might even want to scrap it and start over. The authorized plan to build the shuttle-serviced space station Freedom by the mid 1990s just isn't working. Congress is reluctant to fund it. New doubts about shuttle reliability suggest that the plan is unrealistic.

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This seems to be a rerun of the sad history of the shuttle itself with its underfunded development and overly optimistic promises. It never has - or will - offer cost-cutting, airlinelike routine access to space.

The relevant congressional committees are looking for ways to cut about $400 million from the $1.665 billion fiscal 1990 space station appropriation before the House. NASA right now is rethinking Freedom's design to adapt to such drastically reduced funding. Changes might include such major sacrifices as eliminating the capability for astronauts to work outside the station except in emergencies, cutting crew size from eight to four, or halving the electric power.

Here we go again with roller-coaster funding and design diddling that emasculates and delays a major space program, and, in the end, boosts its costs.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) says it's ``statistically likely'' that NASA will lose an orbiter over the next half decade - although not necessarily with loss of life.

NASA's current planning envisions 14 missions a year after 1992. That's based on having a four-orbiter fleet when Challenger's replacement, the Endeavor, enters service. OTA concludes that NASA will need a fifth orbiter as a backup to ensure having four flyable shuttles at any given time. OTA notes that, even without a crippling accident, the need to maintain and refurbish the aging orbiters implies that one or another of them will always be grounded by the late 1990s.

This perceived need for a fifth orbiter costing $2.5 billion fuels congressional skepticism. And the Air Force is so concerned about shuttle reliability that it is pulling out of the shuttle program altogether.

Meanwhile, NASA's European, Japanese, and Canadian space-station partners grow uneasy about hitching their manned space-flight future to NASA's uncertain star. Freedom was supposed to pioneer integrated, international cooperation in space.

Instead, its uncertainties are beginning to drive foreign partners to look to themselves and to the Soviet Union. The European Space Agency is developing its own modest astronaut-serviced space station and a shuttlelike craft. France takes part in Soviet MIR space-station activity. Even Britain is recruiting an astronaut for MIR service.

If the US manned spaceflight program is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well. But there is no national consensus as to what it should do, as critics repeatedly point out. It's time to drop the usual hand-wringing over lack of goals and face the awful question of whether to scrap the present manned spaceflight plan altogether.

Why not go back to square one and rethink the entire program, with administration planners working closely with Congress? Why not try to frame a program whose budget can be sustained and whose schedule can be met? The current plan seems to have put NASA back on the road that led to the Challenger disaster.