Space-Program Overhaul

ACTING under presidential orders, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is redesigning Space Station Freedom. But that's only fiddling at the edges of America's space challenge.

The United States needs to rethink its civilian space program, which has drifted without overall purpose since rivalry with the old Soviet Union ceased to be a dominant factor two decades ago.

Successive administrations have studied the issue. Visions of Manifest Destiny have colored often-cogent analyses of commissions and task forces. Scenarios that featured humans living in Earth orbit, inhabiting the moon, and exploring Mars have dominated the national debate. Neither Congress nor the American people took these scenarios seriously.

No single country could justify the cost of such ambitious projects. They would have to be done internationally. But the US has proved to be an unreliable collaborator. Its main partners - Canada, Europe, and Japan - are weary of unilateral cutbacks and redesigns. This has left the US with an ill-defined program burdened by big-ticket projects.

NASA administrator Daniel Goldin complains of resistance within his agency. Congress worries that a cheaper station will be useless. The international partners wonder if they have hitched their own manned spaceflight programs to the wrong star. And the Russian experts invited to consult on the redesign have gone home, baffled by the administration's failure to decide whether or how it wants to work with them.

President Clinton might do well to scrap Freedom. It is futile to try to come up with a rational space station design when the larger space program lacks established long-term goals.

This administration should do what its predecessors failed to do: define what the US should accomplish in space and outline a realistic program to do it.

A common theme in previous space policy reviews has been the need to build a new spaceflight infrastructure if the US is to benefit from space activity. Today's technology, especially rocketry, is too costly and inefficient. Yet this obvious problem has been given low priority. It should be the central focus of a redesigned space program.

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