America's space program, a year after the Challenger disaster, is slowly recovering and has the potential of emerging stronger and better balanced than in the past. That is one of the themes evident at a national symposium here this week, attended by many in the space community. Among the signs that the United States is beginning to reinvigorate its civilian and military space programs, officials cite these:
Progress on the development of a permanent, manned space station. Current plans call for a station to be put in low-earth orbit around 1994.
Yet the project is expected to continue to run into funding problems in Congress. The cost of a station has been estimated at $8 billion. But because of recent design changes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is reassessing that figure. No matter what the price tag, however, NASA administrator James C. Fletcher vowed this week that the agency would not delay the start work on the station, though he said it may have to stretch out its development.
[In Washington Thursday, Mr. Fletcher told a Senate subcommittee that NASA is carrying out all of the recommendations of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger explosion of Jan. 28 that destroyed the shuttle and killed its crew of seven.]
Research into a national aerospace plane. Being looked at by the Pentagon and NASA is a plane that could take off from a runway like a conventional aircraft and fly in and out of low-earth orbit. The military is interested in such a craft for possible reconnaissance and other missions. NASA is interested in one to more cheaply cart people to and from space. Officials are hoping to have an early prototype by around 1993.
The move toward a ``mixed'' space-launch fleet. Long dependent on the shuttle to launch cargo, NASA and the Pentagon are now exploring a family of expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) in the wake of the shuttle's grounding.
``The lesson learned from the Challenger accident is to never again depend on a single means for access to space,'' says Secretary of the Air Force Edward Aldridge Jr.
This week the Air Force awarded a contract to McDonnell Douglas Corporation to build a new medium launch vehicle (MLV). It envisions buying four to 12 MLVs a year starting in 1989.
Both NASA and the Pentagon, meanwhile, are studying the development of an unmanned heavy-launch vehicle that could carry more than three times the cargo of the shuttle.
``Today a mixed fleet is absolutely essential,'' says Allan McArtor, a senior vice-president of Federal Express and chairman of a NASA advisory committee on commercial space transport.
Gradually the nation's launch fleet will be brought back to capacity. NASA officials contend everything is on track to launch a shuttle in February 1988 in accord with its announced provisional schedule.
Yet some space experts at the meeting doubt the agency will make its deadline, given the technical reviews and tests that remain to be done on the system. And once a fourth orbiter to replace the Challenger is completed, around 1992, there is some question that the agency will be able to meet its goal of launching 16 shuttle flights a year. Some analysts think the number will be closer to 12.
Building a nonmilitary ELV fleet appears likely to be a slow process. The Reagan administration's proposed budget for fiscal 1988 provides no money for expendable rockets. Funds for those will have to be sought later this year.
One area in which NASA administrators contend they are making progress is rebuilding ``human resources.'' The agency recently announced a reorganization aimed at safer, more efficient operation.
Headquarters has reestablished direct control of manned space-flight programs. Control had been vested in three space flight centers. Yet some outsiders believe the agency has a long way to go to restore internal morale and external confidence.
``Whether it [NASA] can heal itself from the inside still isn't certain,'' says John Logsdon, a space expert at George Washington University. He and other observers contend that NASA still lacks a vision of what the overall objectives of the space program should be. ``The US civilian role in space still isn't defined,'' Logsdon says.
Some think the US needs to undertake a dramatic initiative to help revive enthusiasm in the high frontier and regain the country's leadership in manned space flight. Michael Yarymovych, a vice-president of Rockwell International, suggests that the country commit itself to an expedition to Mars.