US lags behind USSR in plans to explore Mars space frontier

MARS - the next planetary frontier. The Planetary Society is circulating a statement to gain support for this concept as a major goal for human exploration. A couple of hundred initial signatories include industrial executives, former federal officials, artists, and scientists, as well as astronauts and space buffs. Released before the Reagan/Gorbachev meeting, the declaration notes that joint Mars exploration provides ``a realistic and possibly unique opportunity for the United States and the Soviet Union to work together ... on behalf of the human species.''

That makes sense superficially. But is it really ``realistic''?

The two countries certainly have the technical ability to lead humanity to Mars. There wouldn't even have to be a tightly focused program at the beginning. Loose coordination among the space programs of interested nations would suffice to lay the groundwork.

There's also no question that the Soviet Union is ready to assume such leadership. It invites participation in a series of unmanned Mars missions due to start next year. The experience it's gaining in extended spaceflight and its varied fleet of launch rockets are just what's needed to prepare to send cosmonauts to Mars.

It's United States readiness that's in doubt. It's easy enough to endorse the Planetary Society declaration. What's lacking is a national commitment to the kind of space program that would allow the United States to help lead even a loosely coordinated global Mars effort.

Congress and the administration are preoccupied with shoehorning NASA's poorly focused program into a tight budget. The scaled-down space station won't be ready before 1996, if then. It will be a long time before the United States can begin to share in the study of extended space-based living at which the Soviets excel. Moreover, US unmanned space exploration is so emasculated that last week's announcement of the retargeting of the long-delayed Galileo mission to Jupiter was greeted by the press almost as if it were a new initiative. Finally, it will be well into the next decade before the United States can begin to match Soviet launch capability.

The United States can't commit itself to a far-reaching international civilian space effort until it commits itself to a long-term national space program that would enable it to make a substantial international contribution. The Mars Declaration reminds the country it badly needs to put its space program in order. But with the election year approaching, that is unlikely to happen until a new administration takes control.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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