A task force headed by astronaut Sally K. Ride suggested Monday that the United States move toward building a permanent outpost on the moon as a way station toward the ultimate objective of "exploring, prospecting and settling Mars."
The long-awaited report, ordered as a part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's effort to recover from the devastation of the January, 1986, Challenger disaster, was delivered to NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher last week and released Monday.
In its broad outlines, it agrees with the conclusions of a blue-ribbon study completed by a National Commission on Space last year.
In the 63-page report, Ride brushed aside persistent calls from some space enthusiasts for the United States to adopt a single main objective similar to the John F. Kennedy Administration's commitment to land men on the moon in the 1960s.
Indeed, she wrote, "it would not be good strategy, good science or good policy for the U.S. to select a single initiative, then pursue it single-mindedly. The pursuit of a single initiative to the exclusion of all others results in leadership in only a limited range of space endeavor."
The Ride study recommended instead that the United States adopt a strategy of building outward from Earth orbital operations to the ultimate goal of a human presence on Mars.
"Settling Mars should be our eventual goal, but it should not be our next goal," the report said.
"Sending people to and from Mars is not the only issue involved. Understanding the requirements and implications of building and sustaining a permanent base on another world is equally important. We should adopt a strategy of natural progression which leads step by step, in an orderly, unhurried way, inexorably toward Mars."
The yearlong study of NASA's long-term strategy was the final space agency assignment for Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. The veteran of two space shuttle missions is leaving the astronaut corps to join Stanford University's Center for International Security and Arms Control. Ride took the assignment after serving on the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger explosion.
In a letter made public Monday, Fletcher told Ride that the analysis of long-term goals had "opened a bright window on the issues of leadership in space and the means to reach--and sustain--that position."
Besides the lunar outpost and work toward expeditions to Mars, the Ride panel recommended long-range strategies giving priority to the study from space of Earth's resources and the unmanned exploration of the solar system.
In conceding that, in recent years, the United States has lost its firm grip on leadership in space exploration, Ride said that NASA's most pressing problem in the years just ahead, no matter what longer range course it takes, will be its limited ability to put payloads into Earth orbit.
"Until we can get people and cargo to and from orbit reliably and efficiently, our reach will exceed our grasp."
Although the report stressed flexibility and commitments extending over decades, Ride said that an early investment in technology, launching vehicles and space station planning could move the United States toward the foundation for a permanent station on the moon by the turn of the century.
"Although explorers have reached the moon, the moon has not been fully explored," she said. "This initiative would push back frontiers, not to achieve a blaze of glory, but to explore, to understand, to learn and to develop; it would place the Apollo program into a broader context of continuing exploration, spanning several generations of Americans."