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Resighting the space program

WHAT the American manned space program most needs now is to reestablish the correct sense of pace and direction, in the wake of the explosion of the shuttle Challenger. These are proper areas for self-examination by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and for congressional oversight and review. NASA has appropriately suspended shuttle missions until it has thoroughly investigated the causes of Tuesday's tragedy. Manned flights should not be resumed until an understanding is reached of what went wrong.

Congressional leaders are on the right track in strongly supporting future exploration and in promising thorough probes of the current program. Space impels man to explore it, as over the centuries he has explored the unknown on Earth.

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Meanwhile, Congress should seek answers to several questions:

Has a false sense of urgency been allowed to develop about recent shuttle flights -- especially this one, so widely advertised? This year NASA had sought to ratchet its number of shuttle launchings up to 15, to reduce costs. Has launch schedule pressure resulted in even the slightest diminution in the shuttle's reliability, so important to success?

Did the extraordinary promotion of the latest flight invite inattention, diversion, or corner cutting in order to launch it within a few days of schedule?

Are rivalries, with accompanying pressures, being allowed to develop -- between military and nonmilitary users, between the shuttle and the European-sponsored Ariane rocket-launching system, or between adherents of manned and unmanned space exploration?

Can Congress, and whatever administration holds the White House at a given time, replace with more consistency the traditional peaks-and-valleys funding for space, which unnecessarily burdens staff?

On the evening of the Challenger explosion, families of the deceased shuttle crew poignantly told Vice-President Bush and two US senators, who had come to console them, that they wanted the space program continued. After careful investigations, it should be.

An orderly process exists for rededication in government programs, in this case including reviews by NASA and Congress. This process should be supported in the months ahead.

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