New Life for US Space Program

Concerns remain over funding, management style, and congressional commitment

WITH President Bush's space vision embodied in his budget request now before Congress, American space policy has entered a challenging new era. Policy analysts here date that era to the President's moon-landing anniversary speech last July 20th. That was when he set two overarching goals. One now is called the Space Exploration Initiative. It envisions returning to the moon, ``this time to stay,'' and eventually exploring Mars.

The other is the more immediate space science goal of intensive satellite surveillance to monitor our own planet's environment - the so-called Mission to Planet Earth.

Both goals set courses for well into the next century. They provide unifying themes for the various elements of the manned and unmanned space efforts.

``We are at a point in the evolution of the US space program and its policy framework that is literally unprecedented,'' says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

He explains: ``Never before ... has there been a clear statement of vision and purpose for the program enunciated at the highest levels of government. And never before has the space program been put forward as a pursuit meritorious in its own right and not because of the broader high policy or foreign policy purposes that it serves.''

Speaking for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jeffrey Rosendhal, special assistant for policy in NASA's Office of Exploration, notes: ``NASA now has come forward with exactly what it has been asked for by Congress for a lot of years, namely a more expansive program, a long-term direction, a long-term goal. It certainly does provide a framework for lots of other decisions.''

Louis Whitsett, a minority staff member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, agrees. He says NASA's ``very bold'' budget ``challenges our imagination in a way that stimulates a lot of support'' in Congress.

He adds, ``I think a lot of people were excited about [the Bush initiative] because it gave our space program focus and a vision it didn't have before.''

Yet he warns that NASA may not get all the money it wants.

He explains that ``NASA must compete with housing issues and veterans affairs'' in congressional appropriations committees. Also, he says, along with the excitement in Congress about the space program, ``there are a lot of concerns as well.''

For one thing, the costs are unclear. But they are certain to total hundreds of billions dollars over the next several decades.

NASA's ``bold'' budget request for fiscal 1991 adds up to $15.1 billion. That is 24 percent above the fiscal 1990 appropriation. Much of the requested boost is for planned increases in established programs, such as the space station. But Dr. Logsdon points out that there also is some new money for the Bush initiatives.

The budget request does not seek a go-ahead for the human exploration effort just yet. NASA asks funding only for homework studies - including building and testing some hardware - so that it can put forward a detailed program proposal a few years hence.

This keeps the request within modest bounds but adds uncertainty that makes Congress uncomfortable.

``Until the base line is firmed up, it's very difficult to coalesce any kind of commitment [in Congress] for the program,'' Mr. Whitsett says.

Management is another concern. For example, the Mission to Planet Earth is part of the global change research program for which the administration is asking more than a billion dollars for fiscal 1991. This involves seven agencies. There is no clear leading agency and Congress wonders who is in charge.

Logsdon warns not to underestimate the management challenge. He told the American Association for the Advancement of Science research policy colloquium earlier this month that the old way of doing space business has to go.

An ``iron triangle'' of NASA, congressional subcomittees, and industry has controlled space policy because government leaders have neglected it, Logsdon said.

Now it is a Bush priority. Moreover, the National Space Council under Vice President Dan Quayle has taken control of that policy for the administration and is insisting that more players be involved. In planning the Space Exploration Initiative, for example, the Departments of Defense and Energy are to be co-equal partners with NASA. Yet, Logsdon says, there needs to be ``a strong central agency.''

Logsdon notes that it will take time to adjust to the scope of the Bush vision. He explains that ``opening up the inner solar system to human settlement ... has essentially no end to it if we're serious about moving humans ... to be born, live, work, and die on other places ... which is literally what the President has said.''

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