The reusable space shuttle, due to make its first orbital test flight March 17, gets the "highest priority" in the fiscal 1982 budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), released last week.
In the $6.7 billion budget, which represents a $1.2 billion increase over the current fiscal year, $2.5 billion is earmarked to finish the shuttle and set up a fully operational shuttle system in the early years of this decade.
But there are some doubts whether the Reagan administration will countenance a NASA budget of this size, even though it is generally well disposed toward the nation's space activities and is said to respect the space agency. Outgoing NASA administrator Robert Frosch told a Jan. 15 budget briefing that he has been attempting to discern the incoming administration's intentions toward NASA but reported little success in the endeavor.
The Carter administration views the shuttle, which is launched by rocket and lands like a airplane, as essential if space is to be exploited effectively and if US leadership in space is to be maintained throughout this century.
The world's first manned space transportation system that can be reused, the shuttle permits retrieval, repair, and service of satellites and is thus of considerable military application. Indeed, the fiscal 1982 defense budget places significant emphasis on the defense-related aspects of the shuttle. The NASA budget would permit the expansion of the proposed shuttle fleet from four to five vehicles. In related space flight projects, it proposes that procurement of the first US spacelab be continued, with initial flight planned for mid-1983.
The NASA budget also provides for the development of the Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar mission (VOIR) to explore the planet Venus in 1986. The VOIR project, which will be launched by the shuttle, will use an advanced microwave radar instrument to peer through heavy Venusian cloud cover to photograph and map the planet's surface features.
The budget also provides continued funding for the solar polar mission to be launched in 1985. A probe will study solar activity and radiation near the sun's polar regions in an attempt to discover the effects of the Sun on Earth. A gamma ray observatory, to be launched in 1986, is aimed to yield knowledge about objects in deep space by studying them in the gamma ray spectral region.
In addition, the budget requests funding for advanced satellite communications, the National Oceanic Satellite System (funded along with the departments of Commerce and Defense), and the global agricultural production forecasting program, which uses the Landsat series of satellites. Funds are also requested for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the remote sensing of land resources, while funding is provided for the development of solid state sensors that could form part of a more advanced earth resources remote sensing system for the 1990s.
All in all, Dr. Frosch regards the NASA budget as a good one, one which "moves us forward toward a new era of space transportation with the space shuttle and provides for continued progress in the areas of aeronautics, space science, and the practical applications of space technology to problems on Earth."
But the administrator contended that the budget, which increases funding 21 percent over the last fiscal year, is "not as good as it should be if we are to revitalize NASA as the cutting edge of our scientific and technological progress."
Dr. Frosch believes the agency is in need of a "long-term investment philosophy" which recognizes that "payoffs will include not only improved knowledge of the Earth and the universe but improved economic performance and more jobs here at home."