THE National Aeronautics and Space Administration must go where no government agency has gone before - back to Square 1 to decide what among its present or planned activities has value for the country and for science.
This is different from saying the United States must decide what to do in space. To judge from what recent administrations have proposed, and successive Congresses have approved, a de facto consensus already exists on what is desired. This is a mix of manned spaceflight, space science, environmental monitoring, and commercial development. But as Rep. George Brown (D) of California points out, neither the Clinton administration nor Congress is willing to finance the program mix.
NASA's requested budget for 1995 is less than that for 1994. Further decreases are likely over the next five years. Space-station spending is capped at $2.1 billion a year. Spending even at that restricted level, however, will progressively starve other elements of the program. Space science is pinched. The space-shuttle budget is so low that officials warn further cuts could jeopardize safety. How to sustain an adequate Earth-monitoring program is uncertain.
The issue is not the priority of manned spaceflight versus other space activities. It is a question of the long-term value of each activity.
Take the spaceflight program: Does its greatest value lie in the research potential of the proposed international space station and the opportunity it offers for a partnership with Russia? Or is the true long-term value to be found in developing more versatile, cost-effective space transportation for the next century? If the latter, then the space station makes little sense. There will be no funds to develop a space-shuttle successor until the station is completed seven years hence. That would leave the US with an aging shuttle fleet to service the new station.
The Russian space partnership is a Clinton foreign-policy priority. Does this require a space station whose demands preempt other space activity? Could not the partnership continue in a strengthened space-science and Earth-observing effort - and in developing new spaceflight capability? This could produce a strong space program with all the elements that America has made known it desires.
NASA, Congress, and the White House have wrestled with space priorities, inconclusively, for years. If they begin to think in terms of long-term value, they may get some answers.