A quarter of a century into the space age, the United States space community is again challenged to think big. Presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II says the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has not been imaginative enough in its long-range planning. Why not acknowledge that its proposed space station is a steppingstone to more ambitious projects - mining the moon or an expedition to Mars? he asks.
The administration also is encouraging private US industry to play a larger space role. In a July 4, 1982, speech, President Reagan promised to ''provide a climate conducive to expanded private sector investment . . . in civil space activities.'' Last May, he directed NASA to sell its expendable rockets to private buyers who would provide launching services as NASA concentrated on the space shuttle.
But dreams of space industry range far beyond rocket launches. They include in-orbit manufacture of high-value products, such as electronic materials and medicinals worth millions of dollars an ounce, and servicing space vehicles in orbit as gas stations now service cars on the highway. Industrial analysts foresee private investment in space activities running as high as $200 billion over the next two decades. They even envision the possibility of privately owned space stations.
And Western Europe and Japan, with their own strong programs, have shown that the US and the Soviet Union are no longer the unchallenged space leaders. This opens both the threat of commercial competition for space-based business and the opportunity to share costs and pool expertise in such ambitious joint projects as the European-built Spacelab recently carried into orbit by the shuttle Columbia.
Thus it is that the US civilian space program seems ripe for a renaissance.
It is poised on the threshold of what Robert Freitag, deputy director of NASA's Space Station Task Force, calls the era in which to lay the ''permanent infrastructure'' for using and occupying near-Earth space. It is poised there waiting for a go-ahead from the administration, the Congress, and the US public.
As John H. Gibbons, director of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), emphasizes, forging a national consensus on space goals is the immediate challenge that must be met.
In recent testimony before Congress, he explained that it is difficult to make a major new thrust into space ''. . . in the absence of a relatively clear idea about the overall public and private space goals for the United States.'' Experts can come up with space station designs. Industries can explore specific projects. But, he said, ''. . . such issues as whether space should be viewed as an important commercial-industrial area, as well as research field, and the question of how much of our tax monies should be spent in support thereof and to compete with foreign governments, cannot be adequately resolved without broad public participation.''
This is why, not only the space community, but the US public as a whole is challenged to think hard about what the US should do in space.
A national consensus in this area is especially important for commercialization. This will not be merely an expansion of private enterprise to take over such services as rocket launching, now performed by the government. That would be ''privatization,'' explains Isaac T. Gillam, NASA's associate administrator for plans and policies. He distinguishes this admittedly important aspect of space enterprise from what he calls true ''commercialization.'' That, he says, means doing things in space that are really new.
Processing highly pure materials with the help of a gravity-free environment is the most visible new prospect. What eventually will turn out to be profitable probably is unforeseeable now. What is needed, Mr. Gillam says, is to get more of industry - not just aerospace industry - involved. This means introducing them to the possibilities of using space in various industrial areas so that industry itself can help define the opportunities. It also means reducing the financial risk of this kind of investment to a level comparable with ordinary business risk, Mr. Gillam notes. And that may mean a new leadership role for NASA.
NASA has been primarily a research and development (R&D) agency with emphasis on science and exploration. It has had little experience with encouraging commercialization in a broad sense, let alone providing the support needed to reduce the investment risk to a level acceptable for private financing.
Yet, even in materials processing where shuttle-based experiments with semiconductor crystals and pharma-ceuticals are promising, only a few companies have been willing to risk R&D money, according to the Center for Space Policy Inc. In a recent analysis, the Center says that ''. . . most companies remain reluctant to commit R&D dollars until the federal government demonstrates its own commitment to the commercialization of space.'' It adds, ''In an environment of high-technological uncertainty and market risk, most investors and corporate planners consider stable government policies and commitment to basic infrastructural services prerequisites to significant investments in space.''
And that, Dr. Gibbons says, means there has to be a national consensus on how far the government should go - how much tax money it should use - to take the lead in space commercialization. He adds that there also should be a consensus on the degree of separation between the military and NASA.
The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, which established NASA, is still the governing legislation. It implies a clear separation of NASA and military work, with the civilian program of NASA having at least an equal claim on national resources as Department of Defense (DOD) programs. That has generally been the case. But, in recent years, the NASA-DOD boundary has become fuzzy.
''There is strong evidence that a nontrivial portion of NASA's current budget is directed to activities of specific value to military, including intelligence programs, although this fact is not spelled out in the budget submissions,'' Gibbons says. Then, too, there is NASA's obligation to share the shuttle with the military.
Thus there has been a de facto mingling of DOD and NASA efforts with no clear decision by the Congress or any administration to do so. There may be merit in more of a melding of the civil and military space efforts, Gibbons told Congress. But this is a major policy shift that requires a national consensus, he says.
For one thing, it would undercut the traditional US diplomatic stance of giving equal weight to civil and military space efforts. Officials of the European Space Agency also have said it would poison the atmosphere for cooperation. ESA would like to be a partner with NASA in further development of manned space flight, but not if the military is involved.
Even if civil and military space programs are kept reasonably separate, Gibbons notes, there still is the question of balance of funding and effort. Both programs draw from the same pool of talent and resources. Gibbons explains that ''recent and projected increases in military space expenditures will more than absorb all the unused capacity of the aerospace industry; merely adding to NASA'S budget would, in the short run, produce little additional capability but much (further) inflation of the costs of high-technology space programs.''
With large and basic questions such as these yet to be resolved, there is little wonder that NASA planners are open to Keyworth's charge of being unimaginative. It is hard for NASA to propose a tightly focused long-term program, such as landing men on the moon, without a national mandate to do so.
The country needs to make its forth major decision of the space age, says space station planner Robert Freitag. He explains that, up to now, there have been only three such major turning points.
President Eisenhower made the first one in 1955 when he decided to develop the Vanguard satellite. This thrust the US into the space age.
President Kennedy made the second decision in 1961. More than a decision to send men to the moon, it started the US on a wide-ranging program of using space. That energized the communications, weather, and military satellite programs and strengthened space exploration.
In 1969, President Nixon took the third big decision when he opted for the space shuttle. Conventional launching rockets had become too expensive. NASA hopes for a space station at that time were premature. The shuttle, as the key to easy access to low Earth orbits, had to come first.
Now, Freitag says, it is time to take the next big decision to establish the permanent infrastructure for using space, including ultimately a permanently occupied space station. He and other NASA officials believe the administration is open to doing this. They think the President may take such a lead in his State of the Union message next month. But whether he does this then or not, there is bound to be major debate in Congress and among the public before any major new space initiatives are taken.
Next: New agenda for space science