For Thomas O. Paine, getting the United States space program moving again is essential to maintaining national strength. A former NASA administrator and chairman of the presidential National Commission on Space (NCS), he considers this critical for American technological leadership.
In the long run, he also considers it vital to national morale.
Thus some 14 months after first submitting the NCS report to the White House, he is crusading in public speeches and private meetings to ensure that the recommendations do not molder on a shelf.
In a recent interview, Mr. Paine explained: ``The way you get [technological leadership] is by adopting broad, very bold programs - like our old Apollo program, going to the moon - and stretching American science and technology to do the very best they can, right out on the forefront of what is humanly possible. And when you have those kinds of programs, every graduate school in America is a little sharper. American industry ... gets an edge and learns how to do things better then anybody else in the world.
``I think it's no secret that the basic reason why we have such a strong predominance in exports around the world in aerospace is because of the fact that we've had these bold programs in the past.
``But now we need to take a new look at our civilian space program and ask the question: `Is it really bold enough to maintain that preeminence?' And the [answer is]: No. Let's set some new goals. Let's move on out to Mars.''
Exploring Mars and establishing a moon base are two major NCS long-range goals. Paine, however, notes that they are offered as part of a balanced program that would develop many different kinds of space capabilities over the next several decades.
Paine sees all of this in a perspective that transcends any one nation's efforts. He sees humanity preparing to cross ``the space frontier,'' preparing for what he calls the ``Extraterrestrial Century'' little more than a dozen years away. As he puts it:
``The continents of Mars are as large as all the continents of Earth. I believe one of the reasons for going to Mars is because of its great abundance of resources [including water]. And with the new kinds of technology that will become available in the 21st century, it will be easier and easier for us to travel there, to land - and, then, when we get there, to begin to live off the land.
``[Mars exploration] will open up an entire new unlimited horizon for humanity. And beyond that, I think it will represent ... a critical stage in evolution in which the human intellect is playing the major role in opening up new worlds.''
During a Planetary Society teleconference with Russian scientists last month, Paine summed up this vision by saying, ``Perhaps the role of mankind in the Solar System is to promote life throughout [it].''
Whether most people would go that far or not, Paine believes American morale would suffer if the United States abandoned leadership on the space frontier. Recalling what happened 25 years ago this October, he reminded the Case for Mars III conference here: ``One of the great disappointments of the 1950s was the failure of the United States to orbit a satellite [ahead of the Russians] when we really had it quite within our power to do so. ... And there was a great deal of feeling that, somehow, America had failed a little bit in its vision.'' He said ``It would be a dreadful thing for our people not to take a leading role in this [new adventure].''
But Paine doesn't think the United States has to view the Soviets as competitors to do that. There now is much to be gained by cooperation. Remembering the linkup of an American Apollo and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in orbital flight 12 years ago, he says, ``I think the Apollo/Soyuz [Test Project] will cast a very long shadow into the next century.''
Whether or not the Reagan administration acts on the NCS report, Paine says the challenge of the space frontier is too insistent for the US to ignore. He notes:
``That report is really written not only for this administration but for future administrations as well. We took a very broad look 50 years into the future. We've recommended goals for NASA over the next 20 years. ... I have great confidence that the next administration will take another look at it, because we do need to set national goals for the United States in space.''