Weeks late and with its substance already leaked to the press, the National Commission on Space has finally released its report of what the United States should do in space over the next half century. It is a bugle call to action to carry humanity's development out into the solar system. But it also raises the question of how many people can hear that call. Currently most public attention is focused on the confusion over the US space program following the Challenger accident and the loss of unmanned rockets that have temporarily cut off American access to space.
As space-policy analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University observes: ``I have a hard time knowing what to think [of the report]. We're in the midst of this angst -- investigating the Challenger explosion, trying to rethink the space program. And here comes this vision of moving out into the solar system. There's an incongruity in timing. Whether anything with this kind of long-range vision has credibility is the question.''
Still, the report could help focus national thinking as the country gropes for a new sense of direction in space.
Ray Williamson of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment notes, ``We ought to have long-term goals. The question with a manned Mars mission is whether it will have broad support of the American people. It needs that to be funded on a long-term basis. But the report provides a focus for discussion. It's now up to the Congress, the Administration, and the public.''
Entitled ``Pioneering the Space Frontier'' and dedicated to the seven Challenger astronauts, the report was prepared by a presidential commission chaired by Thomas O. Paine, a former administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The commission's vision ranges from building a ``highway to space'' infrastructure in Earth orbit, to erecting a ``bridge between worlds'' that would eventually plant human outposts on Mars.
As the report describes it: ``The Highway to Space starts with economical new cargo- and passenger-transport vehicles, adding a transport vehicle for destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. These three systems would become operational in conjunction with an orbital spaceport [space station] within 15 years. In the following five years, the Bridge Between Worlds would support initial robotic lunar surface landings, followed by a permanent outpost to support astronaut operations. In 10 more years the space bridge would be extended out to Mars for detailed robotic exploration followed by a Mars outpost for human activity.''
This program would involve a balanced effort in three main areas: scientific research of both the solar system and the universe; development of commercial enterprises in space, including servicing space facilities; and manned spaceflight. It would be an international effort with 75 percent of the cost picked up by the US and 25 percent by foreign partners.
Such a program would cost $700 billion to $800 billion (1986 dollars) over the 50-year period. But that expense would equal only about 0.5 percent of expected gross national product, less than half the GNP percentage of the Apollo moon program at its peak. The proposal suggests tripling NASA's technology development budget immediately -- from about 2 percent to 6 percent of the total NASA budget -- to develop the needed hardware. The panel says it is offering possibilities, not prophecies. However, if the US were to decide to follow this vision, says commissioner Jack L. Kerrebrock of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ``We're convinced that the country can easily afford it.''