AFTER years of meandering and blue-ribbon panels, the United States finally has a road map for space.
It is moving forward with a new national space policy - one that will guide US plans for spaceflight in the 21st century and could determine if the US can compete with the rest of the world as a commercial launcher.
The goal: finding cheaper ways than the shuttle to spirit into the cosmos by developing a new generation of expendable and reusable rockets. While the policy doesn't push the country in a radical new direction, the mere existence of a blueprint is considered significant.
``Is the US in space to stay? If so, we need a new way of getting there,'' says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington.
White House action
The White House is expected to approve a pair of proposals this month that spell out approaches to developing a new generation of rockets. They illustrate the hedge-your-bets attitude embodied in the policy, which the White House unveiled in August.
The Defense Department is to focus on a new family of expendable rockets, evolving out of existing launchers. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) intends to take a higher-risk approach: It will help the private sector develop technologies that could lead to a new generation of reusable vehicles, initially unmanned, with far lower operating costs than the shuttle's.
``This is our No. 1 priority,'' said NASA administrator Daniel Goldin in congressional testimony this fall. ``If we have to eliminate tasks or cancel tasks, we are going to do it. Without a new launch vehicle, without low-cost access to space, without a high reliability system, I don't know that we'll be in the space business.''
The hopes are twofold: That finding reliable ways to launch payloads into space on a shoestring will allow the US space program to thrive despite tight federal budgets, and that by driving down the cost of putting payloads into orbit, the US can regain a significant part of its once-commanding position in commercial launch services.
``We haven't taken any approach to space policy for 20 years,'' Dr. Logsdon says. ``That in itself makes the policy important. It commits to a pattern of action and assigns responsibilities.
``And it represents a new way of doing business,'' he adds. ``Government pays up front to reduce technological risks, and the private sector pays for the development of a system.''
Even without final approval from the Oval Office on either department's proposal, companies are lining up to take part in the new programs.
Last week, aerospace giants Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas announced that they were joining forces to bid on initial NASA contracts for the X-33, the name for the reusable-launch-vehicle project.
It was the first of what analysts expect to be at least three bids to conduct design studies on a prototype during 1995. One design ultimately will be selected as the demon- stration vehicle.
NASA has proposed a phased approach with several reality checks along the way. It hopes to get a $49 million request in the budget that the president will send to Congress in January.
A decision on whether to proceed with a large-scale demonstration comes in 1996.
If the program proceeds as envisioned, federal funding would reach $178 million by FY '99, with a focus on flight-testing the demonstration vehicle.
In the meantime, a number of issues need to be settled, says a congressional staff member who closely follows the program. These include:
* Technology. NASA has identified several ``key technologies'' that need attention - reusable tanks for the frigid liquid fuels, the use of lightweight graphite composite materials as part of the vehicle's main structure, better ways of protecting the vehicle from the heat of reentry, new engine systems, and electronic guidance systems.
* Performance. Aerospace systems tend to grow in weight by about 20 percent during development. Can a reusable design meet its payload weight goals?
* Reliability. Current launch vehicles have a reliability rate of about 90 percent; on average, 1 out of 10 fail. Because lightweight materials will be used, will a next-generation vehicle be operating closer to the margins of failure to meet payload objectives?
* Cost-effectiveness. Labor costs are a significant portion of launch costs. The shuttle requires hundreds of thousands of man-hours of checkouts between flights. A replacement would need to be designed to operate with significantly faster turn- around times and with far smaller launch teams.
The broad objectives for the project ``are the shuttle all over again'' with a significant difference, the staff member says. ``The demonstrations and checkpoints are to prevent us from making the shuttle mistakes all over again.''
Whether a new line of low-cost launchers will help put the US back on top of the global commercial launch business is unclear.
In any case, competition should not be the driving factor, Logsdon says: lower costs and high reliability should be.
``This will open space to new uses - and be competitive,'' he says.