Although the successful test flight of the shuttle Columbia has opened a new chapter for manned spaceflight, American space scientists themselves face a decade of lean years.
The Reagan budget cutbacks have forced the National Aeronautics and space Administration (NASA) to adopt what acting administrator Anthony J. Calio calls a strategy of maintaining "our long-range technological development, which gives us a base for future missions."
For space scientists, that means trying to keep a basic core of research teams going, making the most of what few research opportunities are still viable , and keeping other options open in the planning stage. NASA officials foresee a turnaround in space science funding within a couple of years. As acting associate administrator for space science Andrew J. Stofan says, they want to be poised so that "if the administration comes to us then and asks for new missions , we'll be able to respond."
Meanwhile, the outlook for doing interesting space science, while restricted, is not entirely bleak.
To begin with, the Explorer satellite program has not been significantly cut. This aspect of space science has tended to fade into the background as public attention focused on the more glamorous Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn missions. But the hard-working little Explorers carry out many scientifically important missions.
They are launched by expendable rockets, and their schedule does not depend upon the shuttle. This is in contrast to all future planetary spacecraft which must be launched from parking orbits to which the shuttle carries them.
NASA expects to launch one or two Explorers a year for the next several years. They will include an Infra Red Astronomy satellite to survey the sky at infrared (heat radication) frequencies, scheduled for a 1982 launch, and the Cosmic Background Explorer, to be launched a few years later, which will study the low frequency so-called "cosmic background" radiation that permeates the universe. This background radiation is believed to be left over from the "big bang" explosion that created the present cosmos.
Except for the Explorers, however, NASA's Office of Space Sciences has only four major missions for the 1980s which it can count on, as of now, and two of these have been deferred.
Space Telescope, the 2.4-meter instrument to be shuttled into orbit in 1985, is still on schedule. Free of atmospheric distortions, it will have 10 times the resolution of ground-based instruments, giving astronomers the clearest view of the universe they have ever had. Galileo -- the project to send a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and a probe to sample its atmosphere -- also is on target.
However, two other major programs have been deferred. Launch of the Gamma Ray Observatory, which astronomers need to study the universe at very high frequencies (as Space Telescope cannot do), has been pushed back to 1987 or 1988 . The Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar, which planetary scientists want to study the cloud-shrouded Venusian surface in detail, also has been delayed to 1988.
Such postponements disappoint scientists who are tantalized by knowing they have the technology to explore the universe in ways never before possible yet are restrained from using it. But deferral is not utterly frustrating as is the outright loss of equally desirable, equally possible research opportunities. Gone, it seems, is the dream of sending a probe to Halley's Comet when it returns at mid-decade. Gone, too, is the American half of the International Solar Polar Mission in which twin spacecraft -- one American and one European -- were to loop respectively over the north an south poles of the sun.
The long-sought start of development of the Solar Electric Propulsion System (SEPS) also has been a budget casualty. This is particularly galling to space scientists, for it undercuts the strategy of maintaining "long-range technology development."
Powered by solar cells, SEPS would be a low-thrust rocket propulsion system that would make study of comets and asteroids and extensive exploration beyond Jupiter feasible. Spacecraft cannot carry enough chemical rocket fuel for the maneuvering such missions require. Among other things, loss of SEPS could make it hard to respond to the recommendation of the Space Science Board of the National Research Council that comet and asteroid missions be given high priority.
To some extent, NASA can blame itself for some of these losses. Its officials set their own priorities within an overall budget figure. When they thought it wise to add $60 million to the shuttle's fiscal 1981 budget to help ensure successful test flights, other programs, especially in space science, suffered.
NASA officials, such as Dr. Stofan, say the decision to drop the American half of Solar Polar (one of the twin spacecraft) was the one which "hurt us the most." However, angry European scientists and officials of the European Space Agency, noting that it was a discretionary act, don't see it that way. They feel cheated and have made strong diplomatic representations. At this writing, efforts reportedly were being made by the two agencies to work out a compromise in which a less capable, less costly, but still useful American craft would be launched. But It was too early to know what would come of this.
Boosters of the halley's Comet mission have not given up either. Even as the shuttle Columbia was about to be launched, a privately organized "Halley Fund" also was launched to try to raise money to put a Halley mission into the NASA schedule. Again, it is too soon to know whether this is only a brave but futile gesture.
Meanwhile, American space scientists are having to adapt to what astronomer David Morrison, NASA's associate administrator for space science, calls the "lowest real budget since the [space sciences] program began in the 1960s."
Budget for NASA Office of Space Science Fiscal Amount Percent Inflation year (millions) change 1973 $481.7 6.2% 1974 $505.3 4.9% 11.0% 1975 $416.5 -17.6% 9.1% 1976 $434.8 4.4% 5.8% 1977 n1 6.5% 1978 $403.1 -7.3% 7.7% 1979 $505.4 25.4% 13.3% 1980 $600.5 18.8% 12.4% 1981 n2 $538.5 -10.3% 12.3%e 1982 n2 $584.2 8.5% 11.0%e
n1 Figure not applicable, transition to different fiscal year
n2 Reagan administration budget requests Source: National Aeronautics and Space Adm inistration