The US space program is undergoing a rebirth.
Eager to capitalize on the capabilities of the reusable space shuttle and repentant of former high-spending ways, Reagan administration space and science officials are thoroughly studying the space program to give it a new direction.
With what he called this ''major reassessment'' underway, presidential science adviser George Keyworth could say little about specific new goals for the space program when he spoke at a panel discussion of space policy at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). However, he did affirm the Reagan administration's commitment to what he said would be a strong space program.
He said the program should be structured not only to make the most of the space shuttle's capabilities, but to pursue a balanced effort in scientific research and practical applications. He indicated that, within the next two or three years, the administration will propose several new ''starts'' for major space projects. He also laid to rest the concern that had been aroused among planetary scientists by suggestions that the Voyager II spacecraft be shut down before it reaches the planets Uranus and Neptune.
Dr. Keyworth said that such false economy is ''unacceptable'' to the Reagan administration. ''The deep space network needed to receive data from Voyager will still receive support,'' he said. ''We throw away billions for want of a few million by not funding such activities.''
Keyworth knew that he was speaking to skeptical, indeed alarmed, scientists and space engineers both in the audience and on the panel. To his left at the speaker's table sat George Low, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who, when he was with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), brought the Apollo moon program to fruition. To his right sat Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences. These men have been openly concerned about the possible loss of US space leadership. Even James Beggs, current NASA administrator, managed to convey his concern about the possible loss of momentum in the space program when he spoke at the panel.
Keyworth tried to speak to these concerns, although he was hampered because he cannot yet talk in terms of a specific program. Noting a widespread uneasiness that US space leadership will be sacrificed to indiscriminate budget cutting, he said he had yet to hear a rumor from the scientific community that bears any relation to the realities of the fiscal 1983 budget, which has yet to be announced.
He also explained that the desire to make the most of the space shuttle's capacity, including using it as a platform for scientific research, does not mean abandoning other aspects of space science, including planetary exploration.
In general, Keyworth tried to convey the message that this is a time of rebirth for the space program, not retrenchment - a time to set a fruitful new direction, not merely cut back on old ways of doing things.
Drs. Low and Press were responsive to this theme. They, too, stressed that it is time for rebirth and new goals in space. However, they emphasized the need to give the space program a sense of direction quickly so as not to throw away US space leadership.
Some areas of general agreement are emerging. Dr. Press, for example, picked up Dr. Keyworth's point that costs of planetary exploration had gotten out of hand - with cost of an individual mission approaching $1 billion. He said planetary scientists must find ways to continue their explorations with missions that cost only a few hundred million dollars each. Both NASA and the National Academy of Sciences are studying this.
Drs. Low and Press also noted the capacity of Western Europe and Japan in space. This not only challenges the US lead, but offers opportunities for cooperative efforts, especially in expensive planetary exploration. They noted that Keyworth is calling for such international cooperation and endorsed this.
However, Dr. Press pointed out that the US must prove itself a reliable partner. Europeans feel badly cheated by NASA's unilateral withdrawal from a joint project to explore the sun, called the International Solar Polar Mission (ISPM). Twin spacecraft, one European and one US, were to be sent over the sun's north and south poles. NASA cancelled the US spacecraft unilaterally. This has degraded the project after the European Space Agency had invested the equivalent of about $100 million.
Dr. Press said that when the Europeans agree to a joint project and invest heavily in it, they consider the agreement an ''unbreakable treaty.'' He believes there is opportunity for new cooperation in the future. But, he said, the US must ''learn the lesson of ISPM.'' It ''must not let that happen again.''
For his part, George Low emphasized that the US must take care not to let its own leadership position be eroded and passed by default to others. He urged setting challenging new long-term goals quickly. Noting that Dr. Keyworth's task force is questioning NASA's role in managing the space program, he said he saw no reason why that highly successful agency should not continue in that role. He urged revitalizing NASA. And he urged facing up to the fact that, eventually, space leadership will be relatively expensive.
He said it should cost little over the next few years to establish new goals and lay the groundwork to fulfill them. But eventually a space budget twice as large as the present budget in terms of real spending power would be needed. This would still be less than the peak budgets at the time of project Apollo. Also, as did Drs. Press and Keyworth, he emphasized that a dollar invested in space capacity historically has returned many dollars worth of payoff to the US.
In general, the panel conveyed a sense that the time has come to stop hand wringing over ''Reaganomics'' and to revitalize the US space program, taking account of the present economic situation. This does not mean retrenchment so much as setting new, fruitful directions. And such friendly, but skeptical and powerful, critics as Drs. Press and Low will keep pressure on the administration to set those directions.