The American space program is one of the most popular of all government activities. Even now, years after the moon walks and long after the drama has gone out of space flight, the sights and sounds of a shuttle launch still stir the emotions. To be there in person is to see controlled propulsion unequaled on Earth. The ground shakes, windows rattle, the air is split by cascading waves of sound. The blinding intensity of the flame that spews from the rocket as it lifts from the pad amid smoke and steam is unimaginable. Television never captures it.
But the space program is more than just spectacle. The exploration of space is the product of the great inventive genius and industrial might that have given the United States the most plentiful economy and the most diverse society that the world has ever known. We stand on the edge of exploring the universe and using it as we have used the Earth--for the well-being and betterment of large numbers of people.
We are also on the verge of expanding to outer space the wars that have plagued civilization on Earth for millennia. The current shuttle mission, which is classified behind a curtain of military secrecy, is a reminder of the two-pronged thrust of this country's interest in space. Up until now the civilian uses have captured most of the headlines, and the military uses have stayed in the wings. But the military has always viewed space as the ultimate high ground, either for spying (the mission of the satellite now being launched) or for weapons themselves--the dream of many strategists. Despite its endorsement of the idea of a space station, the current Administration unfortunately seems more interested in exploitingspace as a military resource than as a civilian one.
On the current flight the demands of the Air Force for secrecy overwhelmed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's longstanding and statutory commitment to openness, even though the only people being kept in the dark about what is going on in space are the American public. Rest assured that the Soviets know full well where the latest signals intelligence satellite will be and what its capabilities are, just as the Pentagon has detailed knowledge of Soviet satellites launched in secret.
Many important political decisions must still be made in this country about future U.S. goals for the militarization of space, and they cannot be made if vital information is to be hidden from view under the veil of national security. It's too bad that NASA had no choice but to go along with the Air Force's rules for the current flight.
Next month, however, will see a return to the more usual civilian missions of the shuttle, and the space agency hopes to launch one a month for the remainder of the year. Sen. Jake Garn of Utah will fly next month--more of a public-relations show than a program necessity. Later on there will be two space-lab scientific missions, which are chockablock with substance in addition to show. Throughout the year additional non-professional astronauts will fly--an important step in the democratization of space.
More than anything else, our era will be known to future generations as the time when humanity broke the bounds of this planet and took the universe as its home. We should do everything possible to ensure that the civilian uses of space keep the upper hand.