It's time for the United States to rethink what it wants to do in space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) struggles to make the shuttle a reliable Earth-to-orbit transportation system. It has a presidential mandate to develop a manned space station as its next logical initiative. Yet these hopes and plans are beset with criticisms.
The US Department of Defense - whose business is crucial for the shuttle's commercial success - says it cannot rely on that system. It wants to maintain an independent launch capability.
Failure of NASA to fulfill its original projection of 12 shuttle missions this year reinforces the Pentagon's concerns. That projection was first cut to 10, then to 7. Now NASA is forced to combine the Discovery's first two missions into one, with an Aug. 24 launch target. It will do well to come through with 6 missions this year.
Meanwhile, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment is soon to release a study seriously questioning the NASA space station concept. The office acknowledges a need for what NASA calls a permanent infrastructure in Earth orbit, including manned facilities. But it contends that NASA plans are neither cost effective nor well thought out.
Space scientists are also concerned that the costs of an orbital station could get out of hand and curtail research - especially planetary exploration - as happened with cost overruns for the shuttle. While these scientists cooperate in planning possible space station projects, they remain skeptical of the wisdom of the NASA project.
It is evident that there is no national consensus on space goals. And until such a consensus emerges, the NASA program will be on uncertain ground in spite of its presidential blessing. Such a consensus cannot arise from NASA or congressional studies. A national debate is needed. To launch such a debate on an informed basis, a presidential commission should be appointed to review all options and propose a US space agenda for the next several decades.