Space: must US retreat?

The United States is entering a new phase in the development of the space frontier. The Space Transportation System, to use the official name for the reusable space shuttle, will do more than launch satellites cheaply. It will open up new possibilities to explore the manufacture of special materials under weightless conditions. And it, will reestablish the United States in the fast-developing field of manned space flight -- a field in which the Soviet Union now is the world leader.

Thus the shuttle is very much a doorway to the future in space. Yet, as the series concluding in today's Monitor bears out, the United States seems reluctant to pass through it and uncertain of what it wants to do in the new world of space exploration and practical applications that lies beyond.

For a decade now, the space posture of the country that first put men on the moon has been impaired by lack of consistent policy. An undoubted capacity for achievement is underutilized. The major challenge from the Soviet Union is the persistence that has enabled it to carry on with a long-term program. This has given it a formidable space capacity, including what amounts to a prototype for an operational manned space station.

There is much concern that President Reagan's proposed cuts in the US space effort will emascualte vital programs. Certainly it would be unwise to cut back on planetary research to such an extent that the country loses its hard-won capability in this field. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which carried out many of those spectacular planetary missions, now feels its very existence threatened.

Certainly, too, it would be dishonorable for the US unilaterally to pull out of international agreements, especially when the other partners have already spent a great deal of money and rearranged their own priorities for the joint ventures. Yet this is what is threatened by proposals to drop the US half of the Solar-Polar Mission to send twin spacecraft over the poles of the sun and to restrict US participation in spacelab missions. Spacelab, a capsule carried by the shuttle in which scientists can work in orbit, is Western Europe's contribution to the shuttle program.

Yet, while it is easy to criticize what appears to be thoughtless budget slashing, there is a larger issue. The proposed cuts are thoughtless precisely because there is no guiding policy -- no long-term goal -- to give budget planners an overall perspective.

The US never made up its mind what it wanted do after the stunning success of the Apollo moon program. There was talk of focusing on practical applications. In the early 1970s the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations, together with the administration and the Congress, worked out a strategy for such development. This gave a central role to the shuttle as an efficient way to launch spacecraft.It included a commitment to constant budgeting, meaning the same level from year to year adjusted for inflation. Unfortunately, the concept did not even last a year. NASA has lived in a hand-to-mouth manner for a decade. On-again, off-again programs have proved wasteful in many areas. This has led to unilateral changes in international projects that have angered European partners long before the present cutbacks were threatened.

Thus the challenge facing the US as the Columbia prepares for its maiden voyage is to get its act together, set some meaningful goals which it can pursue consistently, and fund the effort at a sustained level. Important as it is to restrain federal spending, the administration should give very high priority to defining such goals. Meanwhile, it should be careful not to undercut the country's spac e capability with hasty budget trims.

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