PRESIDENT Bush is right. The United States owes much gratitude to Richard H. Truly as he leaves his job as the first post-Challenger head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Mr. Truly's administration got the manned spacecraft system flying again with renewed credibility and high safety standards. It revitalized NASA and restored morale.
Yet it is time for change. NASA has been reluctant to end its love affair with massive projects and with manned space flight. This is in spite of the fact that several blue-ribbon studies have recommended a better balance between manned and unmanned space activity. NASA itself has officially identified scientific exploration as its main mission and first priority, and many space scientists urge more emphasis on relatively small unmanned projects to carry out that mission.
NASA's recent fiscal 1993 budget request features a healthy boost for the space station. But to hold down the overall space budget, it drops the long-planned Comet Rendezvous/Asteroid Fly-by mission and terminates funding for the Magellan Venus radar-mapping program while this still is gathering valuable data. That hardly gives high priority to scientific exploration.
In its continued emphasis on the space station, NASA planning seems to act against its own best interests. The requested budget includes no ongoing funding for the program to develop an advanced solid rocket motor. Yet the current station plan relies on that motor as part of the ground-to-orbit transportation system.
NASA has been reluctant to change its "big is better" mindset even for unmanned ventures. It had consistently turned aside scientists' criticism that it was putting too many eggs in too few baskets by planning an Earth-observing system based on a few multibillion-dollar orbiting platforms. It finally reversed itself last year after the release of a critical report by an outside engineering review panel and under pressure from the National Space Council headed by Vice President Quayle. Now NASA will use s maller, cheaper satellites that can begin observing sooner than was possible with the big platforms and with less risk that a single launch failure will cripple the program.
It would be unfair to blame NASA's institutional mindset on one person. Nevertheless, Admiral Truly is a prominent advocate of manned space flight in general and of the space station and the present shuttle system in particular. That vision is at odds with the widespread realization in the space-flight community - including the National Space Council - that NASA needs to rethink its mission for the next century. It needs to deemphasize manned flight and massive projects while it builds a base of advanced
technology on which to design a new generation of more efficient and economical space vehicles. The agency needs new leadership to make this transition.
The president acted wisely in requesting Truly's resignation. We wish him well and thank him for his service.