VETERAN spaceflight watchers may have felt a twinge of d vu this week.
The United States has just celebrated the silver anniversary of the first Project Apollo moon landing while modern orbiting astronauts tended pregnant newts and hatching fish. In terms of spaceflight technology, the shuttle is an enormous advance beyond the cramped Apollo craft. But in terms of spaceflight policy, the US is stuck right where it was 25 years ago.
Both the Apollo and the shuttle programs raise the same basic question: What does the US want to do in space? Space prophets have repeatedly answered that an orbiting station is the next logical step in the orderly evolution of spaceflight. The Nixon and Ford administrations opted for the shuttle instead.
Today, there is an officially approved space-station program. But the annual congressional battles to fund it and the costly redesigns Congress has forced leave the program's future in doubt.
Through 25 years and six presidential administrations, the US has been unable to define its long-term spaceflight goals. Perhaps it has been trying to do something irrational.
Apollo astronauts went to the moon to win a politically motivated race with the Soviet Union. In a larger sense, they also went on behalf of all mankind, as the plaque they left behind says. The US made its political point. But all humanity shares the scientific knowledge gained.
No nation can justify manned spaceflight in terms of national self-interest. It is too costly and too dangerous. For the foreseeable future, its rewards lie more in the increase of human knowledge than in economic profits. It is inherently an international venture. Thus, no widespread congressional or public support has emerged for US-led efforts to return to the moon or to explore Mars. They would be essentially national programs. And they don't make sense in those terms.
The Reagan-Bush-Clinton space-station program is international in the sense that several nations are involved. But the US pays the largest share and calls the tune - to the annoyance of its partners. The space station in reality is a national project.
The US needs to learn to be a true international partner. It must act more modestly as one nation among many from the initial planning to the operational stages of a program. The costs and benefits of such participation in spaceflight development would be on a scale that the national budget can afford. Then America probably would find its long-sought political consensus for spaceflight activity.