While NASA rebuilds its tattered program, Congress will consider a new spacefaring vision -- the report of the National Commission on Space. Senate hearings are expected to start July 16 -- 17 years to the day since NCS member Neal Armstrong left on the first trip to the moon. House hearings are to follow July 22.
The report, released in May, foresees a golden age of space exploration and commercial development. Astronauts would set up bases on the moon and Mars. NASA's proposed space station would evolve into a true spaceport -- a gateway to the inner solar system.
That may sound farfetched at a time when the United States can't even orbit a satellite. But NCS chairman Thomas O. Paine, a former administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, says it's as serious a projection as 15 well-informed commissioners can make.
He emphasized this recently during a symposium on space policy organized by Resources for the Future and the National Academy of Engineering.
Some critics have dismissed the report as a space cadet's wish list. Mr. Paine counters by insisting that ``it's bold because it was asked to be bold.'' ``We were required to take a look where the nation was going and to propose a space program that would be appropriate for this future America,'' he says. ``We were told both by the White House and by the Congress that anything that we put in could easily be taken out, but that it would be very difficult for them to add anything.''
The commission tackled its job by trying to foresee America's economic future. Looking over the past 100 years, Paine says, ``It was our view that at no time in the history of this nation or indeed of this planet have there been more opportunities in new science and technology to spur our economic growth.''
Based on that analysis, the commission ``conservatively'' projects an average annual growth of the US gross national product of 2.4 percent over the next half century. While conceding this to be ``somewhat simplistic,'' Paine says it gave the commissioners a resource level for planning. What they did, he explains, ``is take that level of resource and lay it out in a series of sequential steps which basically lead to a return to the moon with a robotically supported outpost for astronauts about the year 2005 and the initial -- again robotically supported -- human outpost on Mars about 2015.''
The commission concluded that Mars and its moons, Phobos and Deimos, would be a 21st-century resource base -- a prospect that the Soviet Union also appears to appreciate.
If Phobos is a captured carbonaceous asteroid, as Mars experts generally believe, it would have a lot of water. Paine explains: ``With solar energy to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen, it could become ... a very valuable refueling base for spacecraft moving around the inner solar system. In '88, the Soviets will be making the first probes to determine its content and the feasibility of developing such capabilities.''
He also points out that the Martian surface has plenty of water, carbon, and other things to support organic life.
``If the human intellect, then, initiates it and does it with the proper types of technology, we believe life can indeed exist on Mars in the future,'' Paine says. Noting rising world interest in Mars exploration, he predicts that ``in the next century, there will be a great political motive for the United States retaining leadership and concentrating on Mars.''
The commission had no doubt that the US could acquire the technology that would lead to orbiting spaceports and inner solar-system development. But it will take a lot of work: In concentrating on the shuttle, NASA neglected advanced rockets, materials, and other fundamentals of space engineering.
In discussing the proposed aerospace plane, Paine notes that NASA and the Air Force brought out ``some of the same slides I had been shown as administrator of NASA in 1970 -- essentially 16 years in which we were still making artist's sketches without doing the fundamental technology.''
The commission urges NASA to triple its technology research -- boosting it from 2 percent to 6 percent of its budget.