Raising a finger to the air, the next president may discover that there is no prevailing wind behind the US space program. Yet when the president takes office, two big decisions will be waiting for him at NASA:
Should the United States proceed with a planned space station?
What kind of launch vehicles will best suit the country's future needs?
These are tough decisions, since the US ``has not had a real debate over what its goals ought to be in space ever since the moon program,'' says space historian Walter McDougall.
Dozens of opinions about the future of the space program have blended into an almost indecipherable babble. That, in turn, has translated into confusion in the public and in Congress over the space station's purpose.
The $25 billion project has been described as a satellite-repair garage in the sky; an outpost for further human exploration; a natural opportunity for international cooperation; an international laboratory for crystal growth, microgravity, and medical experiments; and many other things.
The station will be all of these, says Jeffrey Rosendhal, a visiting professor at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. The problem is that ``each camp comes in with a different message and the arguments cancel each other out. What the arguments should do is reinforce each other.''
``All the groups should get together, have an horrendous internal argument ... and then go out and speak with one voice,'' he says. If the political world gets confusing signals, it is the ``kiss of death.''
In June Congress approved $900 million of the $967 million requested for the station. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Station James Odom, in a telephone interview, called that a ``vote of confidence.'' But Congress qualified that confidence, including a provision automatically to cancel the station next April if the next president does not specifically endorse it.
As far back as 1959, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun proposed to President Eisenhower a plan to build a space station and a reusable launch vehicle.
``Some people say that NASA lacks long-range planning. Well, this is a long-range plan it has had as long as the agency has existed,'' says Edward Crowley, NASA space station advisory committee member and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dr. McDougall says the best political argument he can think of for the space station is that the Soviets already have one that is operating full-time.
``But so what?'' he continues. ``The Russians may be wasting their money.''
On the other hand, if the US backs away from the space station, it would be losing almost $8 billion worth of commitment from the Europeans and Japanese, who would continue to build their own stations, Mr. Odom says.
``We have significantly impacted the direction of their programs ... and if we bow out at this point, it would be a dreadful thing from an international standpoint,'' he says.
Whether or not the station is built, the debate has raised deeper questions about how the US conducts its space program. When should it cooperate rather than compete? How can it best show leadership? Should it spread thin its space efforts or concentrate on what it does best?
The US cannot be preeminent in every aspect of space activity, McDougall says.
``Even if we had never made a mistake and kept the space program going at a good clip, we still would be facing the problem of not being able to lead in every category simply because new technology diffuses around the world, and gradually other countries get into the game.... We have to start doing what other countries do and target our investment to fulfill those goals that we think are most important,'' he says.
Some scientists say that international cooperation takes some of the edge off the space program's exciting element of competition and makes it more difficult to win public support. But most agree that fiscal realities and a desire not to be left out of a leadership role in international projects will dictate a balance between the two.
Besides deciding whether or not to back the space station, the next president and Congress must also try to ensure that the nation has adequate, reliable access to space. For the past eight years, the military, NASA scientists, and some commercial firms have been relying on the shuttle for getting certain payloads into space. All are eager to diversify their launch options to prevent a recurrence of the hiatus in US space flight caused by the Challenger accident.
``Dependence on the shuttle as a single launch possibility introduced human safety as a crucial consideration into the program even for those missions where less risky alternatives should have been available,'' says a NASA Space and Earth Science Advisory Committee report.
President Reagan has begun to shift some responsibility for space transportation to the private sector and the Defense Department. But NASA will inevitably be responsible for a portion of the launches.
Between 1989 and 2000, the US will have between 600,000 and 4 million pounds of material to lift into low Earth orbit, says Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in a recent report. The total depends on whether or not the Strategic Defense Initiative is deployed and a manned mission to Mars is pursued.
``Such uncertainty makes rational choice among alternative paths extremely difficult,'' OTA says. Nevertheless, policymakers are trying to select among five proposed alternative launch systems in anticipation of yet-to-be decided goals.
The proposed Titan-V system could be developed sooner than other options and would be useful during an interim period. To deploy the space station by the mid-1990s without reducing space science missions, the unpiloted Shuttle-C would be required, OTA says. SDI deployment would require either the ``transition vehicle'' or the vaguely defined ``advanced launch system.''
A manned moon or Mars mission would require either the Shuttle-C, transition launch vehicle, or the advanced launch system.
If NASA and DOD space activities remain constant or are reduced, existing systems will be sufficient. These include the space shuttle, the heavy-launch capacity Titan IV, and two medium-capacity vehicles - the Delta II and the Atlas Centaur II.
Last in a five-part series. Previous articles ran Sept. 19 through 22.
30 years in space flight USSR 1957 Sputnik 1 satellite launched 1959 First unmanned landing on moon 1961 Yuri Gagarin becomes first man in space 1967 Unmanned vehicle makes first landing on Venus. Cosmonaut dies when Soyuz 1 crashes to Earth after technical problems 1971 Salyut 1 space station orbited; three crewmen die on a return flight from the station 1975 Soviet Soyuz and US Apollo capsules dock in orbit 1982 Salyut 7 space station launched 1986 Mir, the Soviets' eighth space station, launched 1987 Yuri Romanenko sets space endurance record, spending 326 days aboard Mir space station USA 1958 NASA founded; Explorer 1 satellite launched 1961 Alan Shepard first US astronaut to fly in space 1962 John Glenn first American to orbit Earth 1967 Three astronauts perish in launch pad fire during flight simulation in preparation for Apollo 1 mission 1969 Apollo 11 mission lands first men on moon 1973 Skylab space station launched; three missions held there in 1973 and early 1974 1975 US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules dock in orbit 1977 Voyager 1 launched toward outer planets 1979 Skylab's orbit deteriorates, falls back to Earth 1981 Space shuttle Columbia makes first flight in space 1986 Shuttle Challenger explodes; seven astronauts killed Source: Knight-Ridder Graphics Network
Proposed US alternative launch systems The Challenger disaster convinced the space community that the US space program could not rely on the space shuttle alone. Several alternative systems are currently under consideration by the US government. Titan V A heavy-lift, expendable, unpiloted launch vehicle derived from the soon to be launched Titan IV. Transition Vehicle A partially reusable unpiloted launch vehicle with recoverable engines designed to be built with existing technology. Advanced Launch System A new unpiloted launch system under study by the Air Force and NASA designed to launch large cargo payloads economically.
Two other proposed launch systems, Shuttle-C and Shuttle II are derived from the current space shuttle. Shuttle-C would replace the orbiter with an expendable unpiloted cargo carrier, while Shuttle II would feature a reusable piloted vehicle.
Source: Office of Technology Assessment