Reagan's plan for US space science: It presents a dazzling view, but it may be more than budget cutters can accept

It's one thing to outline a bold future for space science. It's another thing to pay for it. As concern over the deficit turns into budget cuts, space scientists may have to lower their expectations.

President Reagan has a dazzling vision of America's space future.

Introducing his administration's then-new US National Space Strategy at a press conference in September, he declared: ``We're going to keep pushing back the frontier of space, and keep opening new doors of discovery and opportunity and progress. We're going to do it with the shuttle program. Within a decade, we're going to do it with a manned space station.''

Four months later, as his administration shapes an austere 1986 budget, that vision may be hard pressed to retain its luster.

Besides having a space station on orbit by January 1994, the new national strategy calls for a vigorous space-science program. It requires identifying long-term goals toward which it and the manned spaceflight program should be working. These likely will include a return to the moon or a manned trip to Mars in the next century. The US space-science community now wonders how well such ambitions will hold up against the cost-cutters' demands.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had been promised 1 percent per year real growth in its budget over the next four years. This would allow the agency to develop the space-station design without having to cut back on other responsibilities. The space-science community has been especially concerned not to have a repetition of the situation that occurred when the cost of space-shuttle development in the 1970s crimped funding for planetary exploration.

Now, the President reportedly has agreed to budget-planning guidelines that would freeze, reduce, or eliminate most domestic spending programs. He has said he will submit a budget that specifies no more total spending than does that of the current fiscal year. And, as an indication of the mood in Congress, Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas has observed, ``There aren't any painless ways to reduce the deficit.''

The budget to be sent to Congress Feb. 4 had not been put in final form at this writing. Thus observers could only speculate about its impact on space research. Whether or not such hints as were available seemed ominous depended on those observers' prior expectations.

``The outlook for space science doesn't look good at all,'' says Geraldine Shannon of the space-science working group of the American Association of Universities. The indications are that there will be no new project starts, she says. This puts off further into the future the projects to which research groups have been looking forward.

Yet weighed against what has been done in recent years to boost space science, the prospect of a slowing or freeze in funding growth is less alarming.

Noting that he can't comment on the 1986 budget before it is released, NASA Chief Scientist Frank B. McDonald says perhaps ``the best way to look at it is to recall what has happened over the past four years or so.'' He points out that ``the space-science budget has gone up 50 percent.'' In the once-starved field of planetary exploration, for example, the fiscal 1985 budget reflects an increase of 35 percent over '84 -- a dramatic single-year rise.

This leads some observers, such as Planetary Society executive director Louis Friedman, to be at least mildly optimistic about the continued health of US space science. He says that, based on what he has heard, ``we won't see the same kind of cutbacks we saw four years ago.''

Dr. McDonald, who must be more circumspect in commenting on the budget outlook, observes that ``we have built up significant momentum over the past few years.'' If space science does not continue to get the increases it has been getting, it would slow down. But, he says, it still would improve.

There is a great deal of strength in the present program. McDonald emphasizes the fact that 17 active scientific spacecraft in Earth orbit and interplanetary space right now are returning data that maintain the vitality of US space science. These include the Pioneer-Venus satellite, now orbiting Venus, which will be the only space-based observatory able to track Halley's comet during its closest approach to the sun on Feb. 9 next year.

Meanwhile, a probe called ICE is racing to keep the first-ever comet rendezvous when it passes through the tail of Giacobini-Zinner Sept. 11.

Also on the currently active list, there is Voyager II, now on its way to study Uranus Jan. 24, 1986 and, eventually perhaps, Neptune. Its erstwhile companion Voyager I and the old Pioneer 10 are heading out of the Solar System altogether.

Now 34 to 35 times farther from the sun than is Earth, Pioneer 10 has left the planets behind to become humanity's most distant ``listening post.'' However, Voyager I is likely to be the first probe to leave the Solar System. Unlike Pioneer 10, which is traveling in the main plane of the Solar System where planetary orbits lie, Voyager I is heading out of that plane at a steep angle in a direction in which the heliopause -- the boundary between the sun's sphere of influence and interstellar space -- lies relatively close to the sun. It could enter interstellar space in another seven years or so. Sensors on both Voyager craft have been picking up radio noise from the heliopause.

Looking ahead, planetary scientists have the Galileo mission, which is being readied to head for Jupiter in May 1986 with an expected arrival date of Dec. 10, 1988. It includes a probe that is to orbit the planet and probes that will penetrate the Jovian atmosphere. On the way, Galileo will be sent to the asteroid 29 Amphitrite to make the first close-in inspection of one of these Solar System orphans. On Dec. 6, 1986, the spacecraft should pass within 10,000 to 20,000 kilometers (about 6,200 to 12,400 miles) of the 200 km. object.

Also, NASA is developing the Venus Radar Mapper, due to be sent to Venus in April 1988. It is to map more than 90 percent of that planet's cloud-shrouded surface at a resolution ranging from 120 meters for over half the surface to 190 meters at higher latitudes. And, in a new ``start'' authorized in the 1985 budget, work has begun on the Mars Geochemistry and Climatology Orbiter with an expected launch in 1990. It is to survey the planet's overall distribution of elements and chart its climatic changes through a Martian year.

Astronomy too should take a major step forward when the Hubble Space Telescope is orbited by the shuttle next year. With the clearest view they have ever had, astronomers expect to make many important discoveries with that instrument. Advanced orbiting telescopes sensitive to X-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet and infrared radiation are also being planned by NASA.

Taken together with other projects under development, such as the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite that is to monitor Earth's atmosphere, NASA's current space-research program reflects a healthy recovery from the period of substantially reduced activity it was suffering several years ago.

Other observers, conscious of the difficulties university space scientists, in particular, have been facing, are concerned that a budget freeze could hurt universities, whose scientists do much of US space research and who train future space scientists. To the extent that deterioration has set in for university space science, it will continue rather than be reversed, warns Robert M. Rosenzweig, president of the American Association of Universities.

This longstanding problem has two related aspects.

First, because of scant funding for research instruments and other facilities, university space researchers have found it increasingly difficult to do front-rank work, let alone adequately train graduate students. In his 1981 Senate confirmation hearings, presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II called university space-research facilities ``disgraceful and deplorable.'' In 1983, a joint NASA-university study concluded that ``university space science will soon be insufficient to support current levels of the space-science program of the agency.''

Following the study's recommendations, Dr. McDonald's office had hoped for $11 million in new money in the fiscal 1985 budget to start a rehabilitation program for universities. It was not included and the situation has continued to deteriorate.

The second problem university space scientists have faced has been reduced access to space. As the shuttle has become operational, the sounding rockets, high-altitude balloons, and small satellites that offered fairly frequent, quick, and relatively inexpensive access to space have become less available. The shuttle has not yet offered comparable opportunities. Berths on Spacelab -- the shuttle-carried laboratory -- are few and expensive.

NASA recognizes this problem. Administrator James M. Beggs has noted that ``scientists need to be able to get into space on a short time fuse and relatively inexpensively.'' And McDonald agrees that it is ``a key thing . . . a major problem.''

Among the remedies NASA is considering are the Spartans and Hitchhikers.

Spartans are free-flying satellites that astronauts would dump in space during a shuttle mission and retrieve before returning to base. With a couple of day's worth of battery power, precision pointing for astronomical instruments, and a tape recorder for data, a 2,200-pound Spartan could provide cheap and easy access to low-Earth orbit.

Hitchhikers offer another route. McDonald notes that most shuttle payloads use 80 percent or less of the payload bay capacity. Hitchhiker experiments would stand by and could be quickly latched into the bay as space permitted. Marshall and Goddard Space Flight Centers are working on this concept, including the special interfaces needed to carry the payloads. The shuttle should be able to fly one of these within six months, McDonald says.

He adds that, taken together, the Spartans and Hitchhikers represent the place ``where I'm putting my money'' to provide better access to space for universities.

On the other hand, he says he believes that universities don't want to go into space just to go into space. ``Universities want to do front-rank science,'' he says, ``and that means big projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope.'' And that in turn means doing big science, as well as little science, from the shuttle.

McDonald insists that the shuttle -- and beyond that the space station -- is now the key to progress for US space science. Together with Kenneth J. Frost, NASA's space-station science adviser, he co-wrote a review of this opportunity which was published last month in Science magazine.

They explain: ``With the shuttle having just reached operational status, its promise for science has not yet been realized. The fulfillment of the shuttle's capability is a major concern of the space-science community.''

They urge that community to become involved in planning how best to use the shuttle, and later the space station.

So far, that community has been a somewhat reluctant partner. Some university space scientists are concerned that they are being forced to use manned facilities when small expendable rockets and simple satellites might serve them better.

McDonald says he understands this concern. Yet he explains that such scientists can most easily find the opportunities they seek if they pitch in and help develop them for the shuttle and space station.

Meanwhile, a NASA-commissioned study is being prepared by the National Academy of Sciences under the title ``Major Directions for Space Sciences: 1995-2015.'' This is the same time frame during which other study groups have urged NASA to prepare to set up shop permanently on the moon and perhaps launch an expedition to Mars.

A parallel study by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is due in April.

These studies will take a long-term view. Budget cutting notwithstanding, they likely will mirror the dazzle of the President's September vision. -- 30 --{et

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