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A Future for Manned Space Flight?

May 21, 1992

ENDEAVOUR'S astronauts covered themselves with glory. But their stunning rescue of the Intelsat-6 communications satellite proved little about the value of manned flight in the United States space program.

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Critics question the logic of using an $800 million manned mission to rescue a $150 million satellite. Boosters echo National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chief Daniel S. Goldin in saying the astronauts "demonstrated the wonderful brilliance of the human mind that was able to adapt and react and do the things that machines just can't do." The question is how best to use that brilliance in a space program that makes sense for the US today.

Certainly these qualities have been well employed in unmanned space exploration. Planetary missions have sometimes demanded more ingenuity than has any manned mission to date. Following the Challenger disaster, NASA conceded that some scientific missions planned for the shuttle would be carried out more cheaply and efficiently by unmanned means.

NASA also has conceded the wisdom of not using the shuttle to launch commercial satellites. Rescuing or otherwise servicing commercial satellites may lie beyond government's proper role. Such work requires the hands-on attention of astronauts. And wherever such attention is needed there is no substitute for manned space flight.

Thus the question comes down to the long-standing issue of what the US wants to do in space.

Endeavour's mission provided valuable experience in handling massive objects and constructing frameworks in orbit. If building space station Freedom remains a major American goal, Endeavour's mission was justified as part of the learning needed to plan station construction. If the station were dropped from NASA's program, then that mission would indeed have been an extravagance.

Likewise, if pursuing some kinds of space science through massive long-lived satellites still makes sense, then the shuttle missions planned to service these satellites will be a valuable investment. They could keep these expensive facilities active for decades. In the case of the Hubble Telescope repair mission in late 1993 or early 1994, a service call should even remedy a manufacturing mistake. But if it's better to pursue such science with smaller, cheaper satellites - as many scientists recommend - the shuttle loses this justification.

The administration and Congress need to agree on a long-term space program. The success of the Endeavour astronauts is irrelevant to this issue.