America's basic space policy needs an overhaul

A year from next June, the Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI) office plans to use the European-built Spacelab on a shuttle mission dedicated to ``star wars'' research. Astronauts will use industrial lasers to study the accuracy with which laser beams can be pointed and can track fast-moving space targets. This has to be a completely unclassified operation -- open to the scrutiny of the entire world. Moreover, it cannot involve direct research on weaponry. The agreement between the European Space Agency (ESA), which supplied the Spacelab hardware, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) requires that Spacelab modules be used only for peaceful purposes. Presumably, the unclassified research on laser tracking can have civilian uses as well as being applicable to SDI military systems.

SDI's projected shuttle mission illustrates the complexity of military involvement with the civilian side of the US space program. The recent maiden flight of Atlantis on a nominally secret Department of Defense mission has again raised the question: Is the DOD co-opting the civilian space agency? The short answer is no. But it would be simplistic to leave it at that.

The shuttle is a unique national resource intended to serve many purposes. The Pentagon has agreed to use the shuttle to launch many of its communications, weather, and spy satellites. Its support was essential to the viability of the shuttle program. Also, the shuttle offers new capabilities of retrieving and repairing satellites in orbit and of doing manned research in space -- capabilities the DOD increasingly wants to exploit.

But the shuttle is part of a civilian system managed by a civilian agency. The Pentagon so far has found it difficult to keep its classified shuttle payloads truly secret. Moreover, when it wants to use the research capability of internationally supplied hardware such as Spacelab, it has to abide by internationally negotiated rules of openness and forgo work directly related to weapons or military surveillence. This is hardly an ideal situation, from the military point of view.

What has happened is that the development of manned spaceflight has outpaced the policy and legal structure governing it in the United States. It was easy to separate civilian and military aspects of the space program a quarter-century ago when NASA was created with a mandate to run a completely open, civilian operation. Now manned spaceflight is becoming a practical option for commercial and military purposes, as well as for purely scientific and astronautical research. The space shuttle was de veloped to serve all those purposes. But while a multiple mission has long been perceived to be a goal of the shuttle program, little has been done to adjust national policy to accommodate this in a workable way. Indeed, the extent of Pentagon secrecy on its shuttle missions may be in technical violation of NASA's enabling act, which mandates an open program. It violates the spirit of that act. Yet it would be silly to deny the Pentagon the right to secrecy for shuttle-launched payloads when no one questi ons its right to launch the same payloads secretly with unmanned rockets, just as it would be silly to forbid secret DOD shuttle-based research.

It is time for the administration and Congress to reconsider basic space policy. ESA and other potential space-station partners have made it clear they would join only a purely civilian effort. Added to this is the fact that the military finds it awkward to operate within an essentially civilian environment. That is why it is building its own shuttle-control center near Colorado Springs, Colo.

Perhaps the military should have its own shuttle. Perhaps the shuttle system should be turned over to a new agency or commercial operator. Then both NASA and the DOD could buy its services as they now buy services of commercial communications satellite networks. NASA, which is primarily a research and development agency, would like to get out of the space truck business and get on with developing the ``next logical step'' in manned spaceflight -- the space station.

Whatever the next logical step in US space policy may be, it needs to be taken fairly soon. Military missions are expected to make up some 30 percent of shuttle flights. The present policy muddle will become increasingly untenable. As things are now, neither NASA, DOD, the US space science community, nor our international space partners know where the historic commitment to an open, civilian US space program really stands.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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