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Mission: space

THE President's National Commission on Space has just presented a bold vision and detailed plan for developing space near Earth for commercial, engineering, and scientific purposes. This would lead to outposts on the Moon and Mars in the next century. It may seem inappropriate to consider such a challenge at a time when multiple failures have grounded the entire national launch capability and when NASA itself stands in need of major repair. Yet this is exactly what Congress and the administration should do as they try to put a meaningful space program back together.

Virtually every study of the American space effort since its inception has stressed the need for a long-term plan to guide its development at a pace and in directions which the nation is willing to sustain. The National Academy of Sciences made this point again last week. In its report, ``Pioneering the Space Frontier,'' it observed that the nation has ``failed to identify any clear goals for its space program, but, nevertheless, tried to attain a level of activity well above the limit set by the means that have effectively been available.''

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That course led to the Challenger tragedy. The shuttle that emerged in the absence of an agreed long-term space plan was a technological compromise that tried to be a launch vehicle for all purposes. It proved inordinately expensive and, without major repair, unsafe.

Moreover, the academy warns that such total reliance on the shuttle now threatens US leadership in space science. The shuttle's hunger for NASA's limited resources has starved space science for more than a decade. The lack of alternative launch vehicles has postponed even those projects that were approved, such as the Galileo mission to Jupiter, which should have been launched this month.

The plan now put forward by the National Commission on Space is just the kind of detailed, balanced program the academy is seeking. It is ambitious. Yet, if the United States is to develop space in a significant way, it will have to take the kind of steps the commission advocates.

These include building an infrastructure that will provide easy access to Earth orbits. A key element will be manned and unmanned transport vehicles that cost 10 to 100 times less to operate than does the shuttle. Another element is a permanent space station as a focus for orbital activities.

Such elements would be key parts of any workable space development program. The United States may not, in the end, adopt the commission plan in its entirety. But it is certainly a useful framework for national debate.

This is a critical point in America's space development. It's a time to determine the national will to pioneer the new frontier. It's time to decide what level of resources can be committed to it in a sustained manner. It would be foolish to try again to carry out a highly visible, prestigious national enterprise with inadequate budgets and uncertain goals.

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