It's time to beef up support for space science at US universities

Spacelab 1, orbiting on the shuttle Columbia, is to inaugurate a new era for space science. But US university scientists are wondering how much they will share in this exciting new opportunity.

Traditionally the backbone of US space research, the university space science groups have fallen on hard times. Their equipment has become obsolete or worn out. Their US graduate students - as opposed to foreign students on their campuses - no longer have fellowship support. Many of the premier space research groups are struggling to stay alive.

Happily, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has awakened to this sorry situation. At this writing, Columbia - with Spacelab in its cargo bay - was poised for takeoff. A new NASA proposal to revive university space science is ready for a budgetary takeoff, too, if the Office of Management and Budget and Congress approve.

It is difficult to exaggerate the plight of the university space scientists and the threat this poses to US strength in space science. The proposed program is a result of a recent joint NASA-university study. In the ''Terms of Reference'' which NASA set for that study, the agency noted that ''university-based space science research is a national resource which cannot be duplicated or obtained elsewhere.'' Yet, the document adds, ''university space science will soon be insufficient to support current levels of the space science program of the agency.''

Presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth put it even more bluntly in his 1981 Senate confirmation hearings. He then called the deteriorated status of university space research facilities ''disgraceful and deplorable.'' He said this situation offered ''unattractive prospects'' for bright young people who might otherwise be attracted to space science careers.

Little has been done to rectify the situation, howver, since Keyworth made that perceptive comment. Hence the sense of urgency with which NASA and the universities have put together their proposal. It is modest financially: an additional $33 million to $34 million on the space science budget. Yet it could revive a key element of US space science strength.

The study was made under the co-chairmanship of Frank McDonald, NASA chief scientist, and Thomas Donahue of the University of Michigan. In handing a copy of their report to The Christian Science Monitor, McDonald pointed out that, while much science is also done at NASA centers, the universities have contributed something like 60 percent of all the experiments as well as having educated the country's space scientists. ''The universities have been really an exceedingly important part of the NASA program,'' he said. NASA, he added, is ''worried about what's happening to its relations (with universities).''

Budget figures tell part of the story. Measured in terms of constant (1982) dollars, the budget of NASA's Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA) peaked at $1.63 billion in fiscal 1964 and has now declined to $0.95 billion for fiscal 1984 (the current federal fiscal year). Also, partly for budgetary reasons and partly because of a shift in strategy, the number of space science vehicles launched yearly has dropped from an average of 4 or 5 in the 1960s to 1 or 2 launches today.

The net result of all this has been a ''depression'' in university space science. NASA encouraged the growth of university research groups in the 1960s with grants to over 40 institutions and support

for 37 space science buildings or additions to buildings. It also underwrote education in this field by supporting over 5,300 students with three-year fellowships.

During the 1970s, however, support for facilities - including instrumentation - evaporated. The fellowships ended. All NASA activities were cut back, as shuttle development took top priority in an era of budgetary restraint. But, McDonald notes, ''the universities have probably suffered more than the (NASA) centers.''

In any event, their space research and education capacity has undergone what the study report calls ''a significant and undesirable erosion.'' To remedy this , NASA, is now proposing a modest, but vital, three-part program.

It wants to add $11 million a year for five years to the OSSA budget for instrumentation, including computers ranging from desktop ''micros'' to the highest-capacity units available. In the 1960s, US university scientists had labs that were the envy of the world. Now they envy their European colleagues. The situation is so bad that, in the words of the study, ''extraordinary steps'' are needed to put US university laboratories back ''into the same position as laboratories in other countries. . . .''

To resume support for educating future US space scientists, NASA wants to reinstate its fellowship program, with 50 awards a year - tuition plus a $13,000 living stipend, rising by $1,000 a year to a maximum of $16,000. The program would work up to 200 fellowships a year.

Finally, an unwisely neglected aspect of space science would be strengthened. This is the continuing analysis and study of data already collected and still pouring in from US Earth satellites and space and planetary probes. There are some 15 such vehicles now operating. McDonald says the continuing contribution of these craft is a story that hasn't been sufficiently told or appreciated. In fact, when NASA proposed turning off the Pioneer craft, public reaction was so strong that Congress gave the agency extra money to keep such craft going. But the OSSA budget is still short of funds to enable university investigators to make the most of such data. Thus NASA would add $20 million a year to OSSA's $ 155 million data budget. This would go far toward maximizing the scientific return from the space fleet.

McDonald acknowledges that this program represents a ''Band-Aid'' approach, which would repair the worst damage university science has suffered. But in the long run, he says, NASA and the universities have to find ways to make the most of research opportunities on the shuttle and to put space science education on a permanently sound foundation.

Meanwhile, though, the ''Band-Aid'' program that has been proposed is urgently needed. Both the administration and the Congress should see that it is part of NASA's 1985 budget.

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