As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration struggles to recover from the Challenger accident and get the shuttles flying again, it is seriously neglecting the needs of space science, which has become the stepchild of the space program. Major structural changes are occurring in space-science programs, but they are not being addressed by NASA, which is running the risk of allowing more of the jewels in its crown to lose their luster.
Over the last 10 years, NASA's budget for space science has held steady at about 15% to 20% of total expenditures. This year space science will get $1.5 billion of NASA's $7.5-billion budget. But the changes in space-science research can be seen in the space agency's Hubble space telescope, which is currently scheduled to be launched in November, 1988, years behind schedule. When the $1.4-billion space telescope finally gets into orbit, it will cost about $150 million a year just to maintain, which means that NASA will be spending about one-tenth of its entire space-science budget on one device.
As space-science projects get bigger, maintaining them consumes large amounts of money. At the same time, space science, like theoretical physics, needs larger and larger machines that themselves cost ever-increasing sums. After the space telescope, astronomers have plans for a series of observing devices that they would like to put into space: an advanced X-ray astrophysics facility ($1 billion), a gamma-ray observatory ($500 million) and a space infrared telescope facility ($500 million). And that's just the astronomers. The Earth scientists have multibillion-dollar plans of their own for the use of space.
Since the start of the space age, the United States has been preeminent in the use of space for scientific research, and it would be foolhardy to abandon this endeavor now. Yet space science has suffered tremendously from NASA's all-shuttle policy. As shuttle missions were delayed, space-science missions consistently went to the bottom of the manifest. Now every mission has been held up from two to four years or longer, putting greater strains on the budget and on the teams of scientists that were painstakingly assembled and that are now beginning to break up in dismay.
Last year was a disaster for the civilian space program in general and for space science in particular. The Centaur rocket that was to have launched the Galileo probe to Jupiter from the space shuttle was canceled. Under the most optimistic plan now being considered, Galileo will get to Jupiter seven years behind schedule.
In addition, most of the Spacelab missions for the shuttle have been canceled, the Observer mission to Mars has been delayed several years, and NASA has withdrawn from the Ulysses probe to the planets that it was to have undertaken with the European Space Agency.
NASA's Space and Earth Science Advisory Committee reported late last year that the space-science program now lacks a clear policy and plans for what to do next. The space agency must address itself to shoring up this vital area of the American effort in space. Far from neglecting space science, NASA should value it greatly.