While astronauts Jack R. Lousma and C. Gordon Fullerton prepare to take the space shuttle Columbia on its third test flight next March, US space planners are trying to start a major public debate over the space program's future.
Some planners within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration talk of manned space stations and a new generation of planetary probes. This is the line taken by deputy NASA administrator Hans M. Mark in a controversial planning document circulated in November.
Other planners on the White House staff see things a little differently. Thus Victor H. Reis, a national security specialist in the Office of Science and Public Policy, discourages thoughts of setting such new goals as a space station at this time. He foresees such developments eventually. But he would prefer to concentrate for a while on making full use of the shuttle itself.
He would encourage private business to develop the shuttle's commercial uses, while the federal government busied itself more with military applications. What comes later, he says, should grow naturally out of such exploitation of the shuttle rather than being predetermined now.
This sets the terms for what should be a crucial policy debate whose outcome could set the direction of the US space program for at least half a decade and perhaps longer.
Thinking such as that of Reis pushes NASA itself subtly into the background. With the Pentagon developing military uses and business sponsoring commercial applications, NASA officials naturally wonder how diminished their agency's role would be.
For their part, officials such as Mark point out that orderly development of a space program requires detailed planning to avoid the waste and extra cost of ad hoc programming.
Indeed, Mark's most controversial proposal is to consider moving the mission control function, now at Houston, to Cape Canaveral, where it could be integrated more efficiently with shuttle operations generally. Such a move would be costly and, from the viewpoint of the Johnson Space Flight Center at Houston, disruptive. Thus, despite the obvious logic of such a move, it will be strongly resisted. Mark says merely that it is time to start discussing it publicly.
Meanwhile, one thing already seems clear. US space scientists cannot hope to continue the planetary research patterns of the past. The Galileo mission to Jupiter, to be launched by the shuttle, may yet get under way. The Venus orbiting imaging radar may be sent to map the Venusian surface late in the decade.
But the main opportunity now for US planetary scientists is to join in the debate constructively to help set new space goals rather than to go on trying to salvage projects based on the planning and dreams of the 1970s