The trouble with space is that it has become part of the furniture. That is making it hard for space scientists to catch the public's eye as they try to raise an alarm about loss of space-science funding.
We take for granted the communications, weather, and navigational satellites whose inauguration once riveted our attention. We are briefly amused by the latest findings of planetary probes and astronomical satellites. Space shuttles orbit with minimal notice taken of their scientific work, unless something goes wrong.
In short, we no longer marvel at the wondrous capabilities that have emerged from the pages of science fiction within the past few decades. We expect these capabilities to be there as a routine part of humanity's technological kit.
Space scientists know better. They realize that space activity is passing a watershed in its development. Some capabilities such as communications satellites and launch facilities have indeed become so routine that private industry has taken over their civilian operation. Other capabilities, especially space science capabilities, cannot justify much private investment. The issue with which governments of space-faring nations now wrestle is where to draw the lines between what private funding should and will support and what public funding should support or forgo altogether. It is easy for key elements of space science to be lost in the process.
This concern was prominent in discussions among a group of space scientists, administrators, and industrialists who met earlier this month for the Space Horizons workshop hosted by Boston University in Cambridge, Mass. As Alan Ludwig, associate administrator for plans and policy of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, noted, his agency is undergoing a wrenching downsizing. It is trying to turn over as much of its traditional space activities as it can to private industry while defining the role it will continue to play. Neither the Clinton administration nor the Republican-dominated Congress has a clear vision of what that role should be. NASA itself, Mr. Ludwig says, is open to suggestions from all quarters. It would like particularly to hear more from the general public.
It may seem trite to say that public input would be welcome. But this is an issue where official lack of vision reflects a lack of any clear sense of what the American public values. What do people want beyond the useful services that private industry is ready to provide or that, like weather monitoring, are an obvious governmental responsibility?
A few budget projections illustrate this point. A few years ago, long-range planning at NASA was based on the assumption that the agency's annual budget would climb to $22 billion by the year 2000. That would handily fund the space station, an ambitious Earth environmental monitoring system, and a lively space-science program. Then the Clinton administration - never mind the budget-cutting Republican Congress - damped down that expectation. Under White House orders, NASA cut $5 billion from its projected spending. This year, it was told to cut $3 billion more. Now the agency expects its current $13.8 billion budget to shrink to $11.6 billion by the decade's end.
With a large share of that budget devoted to shuttle operations and the international space station, NASA will find it hard to support a viable space-science effort. Edward Stone, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which runs many of the planetary programs, has said flatly that dropping the NASA budget to $11.6 billion means "the end of space science."
Presidential science adviser John Gibbons says that future budget projections for science funding, including NASA, are not set in stone. But policy makers who shape the budgets could well find space science an expendable item if there is no groundswell of public support for this kind of exploration.
This is a timely topic for schools, discussion groups, and public forums. The future of American space activity is at stake. Think about it and write (or e-mail) your congressional delegation.