As noted in a recent congressional study, the Soviet Union is methodically and determinedly preparing for the permanent settlement of space. Yet in spite of the success of its shuttle fleet, the United States has no long-range strategy that guides its space program.
The key question now facing US space planners is: What should the country's long-range goals be?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration says that a permanently staffed space station is ''the next logical step.'' That may be true, counters Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, but first, it says, there must be a national consensus on the direction of the US space program. Only then, the OTA says, can any specific project, such as a space station, be properly evaluated in terms of the national interest.
Such a consensus requires informed debate within Congress and among the public generally. This, in turn, needs leadership from the administration.
Thus, with the election year upon it, the US seems poised on the threshold of a new spaceflight era wondering whether, and in what direction, to cross. A three-part series starting today outlines the challenges and opportunities that now beckon.