Delay of next year's shuttle launch, coupled with the Soviet MIR space station's continuing success, has sharpened a question that disturbs American space experts: Does the United States have the political will to sustain a major spaceflight program or must it settle for second place behind the Soviets?
They are particularly concerned about the fate of NASA's own presidentially mandated program to build a space station.
Robert Seamans, chairman of the National Academy of Sciences committee that recently reviewed that effort, blames the United States space malaise on lukewarm White House and congressional support and whipsaw funding. ``Since the days of the Nixon administration, [NASA] administrators have taken on too much with too little resources,'' he observes.
He explains that this led to corner-cutting and over-reliance on the shuttle to the point where a few failures have crippled the entire space program. Noting that Congress has cut space-station funding to a level that barely keeps the program alive, he says he is concerned that this keystone of NASA's space planning may suffer a similar fate.
Richard DalBello, an analyst with the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, shares that concern. He notes that the US will eventually get back into space. But, he says, ``we haven't learned very much'' in the 23 months since Challenger exploded. He sees little thrust for a consistent, adequately funded space program. ``There doesn't seem to be any [political] ability for the nation to do that,'' he says.
Experts such as Dr. Seamans and Mr. DalBello contrast the US approach to spaceflight with that of the Soviets. The Soviets have had their setbacks, too. They failed in attempts to build a heavy-lift rocket in the late 1960s and early '70s - a failure they have only recently overcome. But, DalBello explains, ``their strength lies in having capitalized on their successes and in taking small steps and in always having a consistent plan of where they are going.''
He points out that the US, on the other hand, has taken the ``radically different course'' of making large, impressive technological leaps forward, as in the case of the shuttle. This strategy let NASA maintain some momentum in spite of up-and-down funding and lack of a long-term national strategy because there was at least some kind of commitment to maintaining specific authorized programs.
But, DalBello adds, ``the weakness of this is that you have no other momentum to carry you forward'' when the key program goes awry.
Seamans, who has served as a NASA deputy administrator in the Apollo years and secretary of the Air Force, says a main point of the science academy's space-station study is ``don't try to do things on the cheap.'' He explains, ``People running a major program need the [funding] margin to take dual paths in some cases and to be able to work around a problem when needed.''
The latest delay in the launch of the shuttle Discovery illustrates this point, Seamans says. The shuttle program, he says, still suffers from the years when its managers just did not have the money to provide alternatives.
NASA said Tuesday that a component failed in the test firing of a redesigned shuttle booster rocket last week. Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. (R) of New Mexico, a House science committee member, said NASA should start shopping for another company to build rockets for the shuttle.
NASA said the June 1988 launch date would be pushed back, but by yesterday afternoon had not announced a new target. The director of the Kennedy space center has said the launch might also have been postponed because of a hiring freeze there.
NASA had wanted $767 million for the space station in this fiscal year. The deficit-reduction budget cut this to $425 million with $225 million frozen until June. Seamans says that this means a slower start for the program. That, in itself, would not be disastrous, he adds. What concerns him is that ``this is an indication that the program will be in trouble in the future.'' He says the administration should look hard to see if its commitment to a space station program is viable.
DalBello warns against taking too pessimistic a view. ``There's no doubt we're in a bad way, but it's no cause for dispair,'' he says. He notes that NASA and the Air Force are cooperating to give the US a mixed fleet with expendable rockets to complement the space shuttle. The Air Force, especially, is shifting as many of its launches to expendables as possible. This frees up shuttle capacity for civilian use and helps develop a commercial launch industry, he explains.
In short, he says, ``We're going to make it'' back into space. But, he adds, the lack of a national strategy of what the US wants to do there will remain a problem.