Even before January's shuttle catastrophe, the stage was set for a vigorous debate this year on the future of the U.S. space program.
A National Commission in Space, asked last year by President Reagan to suggest a long-range agenda for U.S. civilian activities in space, will issue its report in April. The 15-member commission will propose that exploring, exploiting and eventually colonizing the inner solar system--the moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt--be accepted as the shaping mission of the U.S. space program in the early 21st Century.
As a step toward such goals, and as a means of making activities in orbit near the Earth more productive, the President has asked Congress to appropriate more than $400 million for a permanently manned space station. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to let contracts for developing the station in 1987, with a target of having it available for use in the mid-1990s. The United States, considering the vision that will be contained in the commission's report along with the development of the space station, will have bold prospects for space activities during the next 30 or more years.
Now the Challenger accident has focused the nation's attention on the totality of U.S. activities in space, not just their long-term prospects. Questions about what we are doing in space, and why, have become unavoidable. A searching assessment is clearly in order--not only on the value of the program but also the health of NASA, which is charged with maintaining American leadership in civilian space activities.
The space program is not only likely to survive such an examination, but also to emerge with a clearer understanding of its benefits and a stronger base of public and political support. What will become obvious is that activities in space are an integral part of the world's economic, military and political fabric.
If anything, the payoffs are undervalued. For example, more than $4 trillion in electronic fund transfers are conducted via communications satellites each year, and television broadcasts of the 1988 Olympics will reach almost half the world's population. Successive Presidents since Lyndon B. Johnson have attested to the crucial role that surveillance satellites play in maintaining strategic stability and monitoring arms-control agreements. New discoveries about our universe--most recently the remarkable images transmitted 2 billion miles from Uranus--excite our imagination. Spectacular space achievements have symbolized, to both the American people and the rest of the world, the nation's pioneering spirit and U.S. leadership in high technology.
Precisely because space technology is being used in so many different ways, it is difficult to make a single argument about the total value of the program. As the respected British weekly The Economist argued, activities in space matter "for two different reasons. Grand ones, which have to do with enlarging the human spirit and discovering new worlds. And practical ones, which concern the condition of ordinary people on Earth."
Striking the right balance between the adventurous and the prosaic has always been a challenge for those designing the U.S. space program. It is made even more so because, for most people, the presence of human crews is an essential element in the common adventure. As far back as 1961, President John F. Kennedy's advisers, in recommending a manned expedition to the moon, told him, "It is man, not merely machines, in space that captures the imagination of the world."
The space program in recent years has been operating on very tight budgets, given what is being attempted. Shuttle development costs were only 40% of the cost of the Apollo program; the estimated space-station budget is less than 30% of the shuttle's. At Apollo's peak in 1966, NASA expenditures were almost 4.4% of the federal budget; lately they have been running at 0.8%. Even that amount must be split between the costs of operating the shuttle, which was to take 50% of NASA's $7.7 billion budget this year, and using the remaining 50% for the research and development activities--exploring the planets, observing Earth, building a space station--that were the reasons for setting up NASA in the first place. NASA is attempting to make do with about one-tenth of the research and development resources it had available in 1966.
It is little wonder, then, that under the glare of the Rogers Commission's scrutiny, NASA does not resemble the "can do" agency of which this nation has been so proud. Over the past few years the organization has been stretched thin in trying to meet all the expectations that the country has placed upon it.
The National Commission on Space is convinced that the next century will see men and women from many nations working and living in space and on other celestial bodies, and it believes that the United States should lead this expansion of the sphere of human activities. It envisions the resources of our moon, of the moons of Mars and of the asteroids being routinely used to support space pioneers, with the aim of their eventual independence from most supplies from Earth. To achieve these visionary objectives, the commission is pushing for a network of space bases and a transportation system that will provide a bridge between worlds.
Given current concerns with getting the shuttle operating again and restoring NASA's vitality, recommending that the United States permanently lead mankind off the surface of this planet might seem almost a mockery. But in reality it is a logical extension of the human adventure to which the seven Challenger astronauts were dedicated. They were willing to accept the risks, knowing that their mission was one thread in the fiber leading to routine human activity in low orbit, then to the moon, to Mars, and perhaps beyond.
There is nothing inevitable in such expansion, despite much rhetoric to the contrary. Going into space, and staying there, is a matter for human choice. There are strong reasons for going ahead, but the decisions to do so must be made by the American public and its representatives. When President Kennedy asked Congress to approve his plan to send Americans to the moon, he noted that "there is no sense in agreeing, or desiring, that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burden to make it successful." The same admonition to our national will is valid today.