Stand in the door of the visitors' building at the Johnson Space Center and a tide of eager-eyed youngsters sweeps past you. There seems no doubt among them that America's destiny lies ``out there,'' center director Jesse W. Moore says. ``The young bright faces coming into the center'' give him confidence in NASA's future.
NASA managers, struggling to rebuild the United States space effort in a climate of severe budgetary restraint, need confidence that the public supports their efforts.
They have to recertify the shuttle fleet and get it flying safely again. They may have to buy a fourth orbiter. They have a backlog of priority cargo to move into orbit and must consider building a new fleet of unmanned rockets. Last Wednesday, President Reagan renewed their mandate to ``build a manned space station for the 1990s.'' If the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has to do all this within the limits of its present $7.3 billion budget, Mr. Moore says, other activities, such as space science, would suffer. Yet neither the White House nor Congress has encouraged NASA to expect major new funding.
Thus agency managers look hopefully to the general public for support. Jon D. Miller, director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, says, ``If several million people wrote Congress asking for it, NASA could have a dozen space stations.''
Enthusiasm for space -- especially among young people -- has made the National Air and Space Museum in Washington the most visited museum in the world. But that interest has yet to be expressed in the kind of political consensus for specific projects which moves Congress.
Management analyst Erasmus H. Kloman, recently retired from the National Academy of Public Administration, notes, ``Whereas a broad consensus had been achieved in support of the Apollo program as a demonstration of America's capability to meet a major technological challenge . . . a similar consensus had never been developed for the shuttle,'' let alone space station.
The recent report of the presidential National Commission on Space details a program to build an orbital infrastructure, based on a space station, that would lead to moon bases and Mars expeditions 25 to 50 years from now. That may be too grand a perspective for the US poltical system.
``I think our system is not constitutionally . . . able to deal with 30-year questions, except in general terms,'' says space policy analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University. ``The important question,'' he explains, ``is what are we doing for the 1990s? Are we investing to make the most of what we have in the late 1990s?''
He points out that US funding for the civilian space program has gone from 4.5 percent of the national budget in days of the peak funding of the Apollo moon-landing program to 0.8 percent. ``The decision on the space station implies a higher priority than the space program [as a whole] now has,'' Mr. Logsdon says.
He observes: ``The President and Congress have committed to [a space station]. But not the country as a whole. . . . This ought to have been the year of the debate on that. But it's been sidetracked by the [Challenger] accident. We may simply slide into a space-station decision as we did with the shuttle.''
Logsdon and many other experts say that would be a public-policy disaster. It would again leave the US space program with no clear goals and inadequate funding. That's the limbo in which it has floundered for over a decade.
Erasmus Kloman contrasts NASA's situation to that of military space activity -- an area where Congress feels pressure from both the White House and from some elements of the public. The military space program has more than tripled over the past five years as President Reagan's defense buildup prepares for what he calls ``the fourth combat medium.'' Even without the Strategic Defense Initiative antimissile program, military space funding now accounts for some two-thirds of the roughly $20 billion overall US space budget.
Mr. Kloman explains: ``What rankles within NASA is the fact that the large expenditures on military space are authorized by a Congress that, at the same time, leaves the NASA budget dangling in a state of uncertainty.'' Congress feels no compelling pressure to do otherwise.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia explains that there is pride in national leadership. But there seems little concern that the country's economic future may depend partly on what it does in space today. Except for the $2 billion-a-year communications-satellite business, there's little true commercial activity now going on in space. Yet, he notes, Japan, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union are investing heavily in programs to explore the commercial prospects of on-orbit manufacturing and other services.
Senator Rockefeller warns: ``We must rebuild our troubled space program. If we do not, we will look back at that decision 20 years from now and realize it was a mistake.'' NASA officials hope that at least some of the public is listening to such warnings and will echo them back to the Congress. Last of 10 articles Articles in the series included: June 2 The fleet is grounded June 3 Why put people in space? June 4 The scientists' lament June 5 Factories on orbit June 6 Military and the shuttle June 9 Soviets take the long view June 10 Competition from Europe and Asia June 11 Why the moon and Mars? June 12 An embattled NASA June 13 Space goals: d'ej`a vu?