Spacelab 1, orbiting on the shuttle Columbia, is to inaugurate a new era for space science. But US university scientists are wondering how much they will share in this exciting new opportunity.
Traditionally the backbone of US space research, the university space science groups have fallen on hard times. Their equipment has become obsolete or worn out. Their US graduate students - as opposed to foreign students on their campuses - no longer have fellowship support. Many of the premier space research groups are struggling to stay alive.
Happily, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has awakened to this sorry situation. At this writing, Columbia - with Spacelab in its cargo bay - was poised for takeoff. A new NASA proposal to revive university space science is ready for a budgetary takeoff, too, if the Office of Management and Budget and Congress approve.
It is difficult to exaggerate the plight of the university space scientists and the threat this poses to US strength in space science. The proposed program is a result of a recent joint NASA-university study. In the ''Terms of Reference'' which NASA set for that study, the agency noted that ''university-based space science research is a national resource which cannot be duplicated or obtained elsewhere.'' Yet, the document adds, ''university space science will soon be insufficient to support current levels of the space science program of the agency.''
Presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth put it even more bluntly in his 1981 Senate confirmation hearings. He then called the deteriorated status of university space research facilities ''disgraceful and deplorable.'' He said this situation offered ''unattractive prospects'' for bright young people who might otherwise be attracted to space science careers.
Little has been done to rectify the situation, howver, since Keyworth made that perceptive comment. Hence the sense of urgency with which NASA and the universities have put together their proposal. It is modest financially: an additional $33 million to $34 million on the space science budget. Yet it could revive a key element of US space science strength.