New Priorities in Space

THE report on the future of the United States space program released last week brings welcome realism to this confused subject. As it notes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is trying to do too many things on a limited budget. Moreover, it has its priorities wrong.

The preeminent example is the agency's overriding emphasis on manned space flight, including building an elaborate space station. The report urges NASA to give top priority to space science. Manned space flight - that is, the shuttle - should be used only when the unique skills of astronauts really are needed for important missions.

This basic recommendation and the many other detailed recommendations that follow from it are not new. Space-program critics have been saying such things for over a decade. But coming as the thoughtful conclusions of a fresh study by a distinguished panel commissioned by Vice President Quayle, in his capacity as chairman of the National Space Council, they carry new weight.

The 12-member panel under the chairmanship of Norman R. Augustine, head of Martin Marietta Corporation, could hardly be considered anti-manned space flight. It includes former astronaut Joe Allen and former NASA Administrator Thomas Paine. It is not manned space flight itself but the overemphasis on manned flight and reliance on a flawed space transport system that is the focus of the panel's concern.

The report wisely points out the folly of using the space shuttle, with its inherent risks and complexity, for jobs that unmanned rockets can do, such as orbiting satellites. This includes the many shuttle trips needed to build Space Station Freedom.

The report urges NASA to use the shuttle only when necessary - four or five times a year at most. It recommends relying on a new unmanned launch system using existing technology. This would be a flexible system that could carry heavier payloads than possible now.

Congress already has asked NASA for a space-station redesign. The panel goes farther, urging a complete rethinking of the concept. It wants a station that is simple in design and easy to maintain and whose main role would be biological research in the space environment.

NASA Administrator Richard Truly has promised to take all recommendations very seriously. Yet he expressed reluctance to downplay the shuttle.

It is time for NASA to face squarely the shuttle's inherent flaws. As the report notes, NASA is likely to lose an orbiter over the next few years. Even barring an accident, crippling mechanical failure is possible.

The report also makes recommendations for tightening NASA operations and bringing new efficiency to its eight centers. It is tempting to suggest scrapping NASA and starting afresh with a new organization. But, as the report notes, that would be a recipe for disaster.

NASA is a unique resource with the skills and experience needed to carry out the national space program.

What's needed is a fresh view of NASA's mission and a willingness to make the substantial changes in outlook and operations needed to focus strengths on a meaningful space program. The report is an outline for doing this. It should be implemented thoroughly and quickly.

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