THE United States is in danger of trashing its space program.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has planned a bare-bones, but balanced, program to meet administration demands to cut spending by $5 billion over the next four years. An additional $2.7 billion that House Republicans want to cut could sap some of its vitality.
It's too soon for program supporters to panic. NASA's fate depends on what Congress actually appropriates after a summer of politicking and debate. Yet it's clear that the broad-ranging national space program of yesteryear just isn't viable anymore. Most cutting-edge projects in space science and human flight now must be done in cost-sharing international partnership if they are to be done at all.
This is true for the other space powers. Members of the European Space Agency are also struggling with spending priorities. They, too, seem unable to make up their minds about what kind of space program they want. The International Space Station is their main human flight initiative. They have already cut their original $4.5 billion financial contribution for 1996 through 2003 to $3.2 billion. They may cut back further when making their final commitment, now expected in October. Given its economic and political uncertainties, Russia is almost totally dependent on international partners. And Japan's main space challenge is to build the laboratory module it is contributing to the international station.
Thus anything the US does to enhance or discourage international cooperation in space will be crucial.
The station and the project to monitor Earth's environment from orbit are the major international projects. Congressional opponents are mounting another effort to kill NASA's space-station participation. There is relatively little scientific justification for the station; however, it is a valuable proving ground to work out the kind of international cooperation needed if human space flight is to have a future. US withdrawal would sour the climate for that cooperation.
The earth-observing program is likewise at risk. Three redesigns in four years have cut NASA's contribution from a $17 billion general climate research project to a $7.25 billion effort to understand human environmental impacts. House Republicans have asked the National Academy of Sciences to review the project again. They hope to make most of their $2.7 billion cut in NASA spending here. That could cripple NASA's share of the project and tarnish the reputation of the US as a reliable partner in space.
In deciding its own course in space, the US will influence world space activity. All will lose if that activity degenerates into competing national programs. Congress and the administration should take care to retain the diversity and capabilities that make the US an effective international space partner. Otherwise, they may wind up with an ineffective space program that isn't worth supporting at any price.