Needed: US space plan

Twenty-five years after the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), space may become an election issue. Democratic presidential candidate John Glenn has endorsed a comprehensive national space plan that would include a space station as its centerpiece. Although President Reagan has acknowledged the importance of the US space program, to date he has outlined no long-term national policy on space. A timely government commitment to space will keep the United States a leading actor not only in space science and exploration, but in the increasingly competitive space economy as well.

A long-term space strategy would generate a myriad of commercial activities in space. The opportunities are already there, and the increasing access of space promises that the opportunities will continue to grow. Today only satellite communication has proved to be a successful commercial space venture. Waiting in the wings are a range of other commercial activities, including launching, operating, and servicing space systems. An entirely new activity will be materials processing in space (MPS). MPS takes advantage of the space environment - the most important attribute of which is zero gravity - to manufacture products difficult or impossible to make on Earth. Pharmaceuticals and semiconductors are thought to be lucrative candidates for MPS.

As the number of commercial enterprises in space increases, their impact on the economy will increase as well. Space commercialization means new products, new services, and new markets. The industrial empires thus forged will in turn provide new jobs. Government policy should encourage this potential for expansion.

The entrepreneurs of the American business community see the advantages of space but are restrained by the lack of a clear framework to guide them. They will act only if they are assured of a far-reaching government policy on space whose bottom line is consistency and a reduction of the risks connected with space ventures.

Without a national space strategy to guide them, American companies will lose their competitive edge to companies abroad. Arianespace, a European consortium, is marketing the launch vehicle Ariane, a successful competitor to the US shuttle. In 1984 another European concern, Spot Image, will market remote-sensing packages that surpass the capabilities of the American Landsat system. These companies are only the first trickle in a flood of foreign competition - not all of which are in the aerospace industry. The space business is likely to be further affected by foreign ''leapfrogging,'' as were US auto and electronics industries in the 1970s.

The Apollo program proved itself in the wealth of scientific and technological research and development it generated. A new program of the same magnitude would repeat this feat, but more important, it would open up a new arena for American free enterprise. Only a cohesive space strategy that will take us into the 21st century can ensure US leadership in space.

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