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New Reagan space policy could put US program back in orbit

NOW that President Reagan has announced a new national space policy, it's time to stop playing games with the United States space program. Both present and future Congresses and administrations need to work for that program's long-term success. As outlined in the Feb. 11 announcement, this is a policy aimed to give direction to the entire United States civil space effort, not just NASA.

Private industry is to be counted on to develop commercial uses of space, including a fleet of commercial rockets. NASA is to undertake step-by-step development to expand the nation's capacity to move outward into the solar system. That includes eventual manned moon bases and manned Mars exploration. The Space Station will continue to be the centerpiece of that effort.

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Essentially, the administration adopted the recommendations of the long-range study group headed by former astronaut Sally Ride. Its key recommendation is for steadiness of effort as opposed to the start-stop programming, the up-and-down funding, and the emphasis on one-shot spectaculars that have characterized US space activity in the past. It is no accident that the tortoiselike continuity of the Soviets has given them a commanding lead in space.

Even in this deficit-fighting era, Congress should give very serious consideration to the request President Reagan is making this week for a substantial boost in NASA's budget. He is asking for $11.3 billion for fiscal 1989, compared with $9 billion this fiscal year. That includes $1 billion for the Space Station as that project moves into the hardware-development phase. It also includes $100 million to start a long-term Pathfinder program to develop the new basic technology needed for whatever space ventures - manned or unmanned - the country wants.

Such projects need to move ahead in timely fashion. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences emphasizes in its review of Space Station plans that such efforts must have continuing adequate funding to succeed. Failing that, they are better not undertaken. Indeed, the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger accident concluded that roller-coaster funding for the shuttle contributed to its design and quality problems.

The future strength of the US civil space activity - which will be a major industrial field in coming decades - depends on the kind of integrated effort President Reagan has outlined. NASA and the Defense Department will work with industry to develop the heavy-lift rockets that will be needed in the 1990s along with less powerful vehicles. NASA will work with industry to develop, launch, and service a small unmanned space station that companies, universities, and government agencies can use for automated experiments. All of this should enable the United States to remain a strong player in space and, by century's end, to catch up with the Soviets.

But, as the National Research Council said of the Space Station, such an achievement ``cannot be considered a `one administration' program nor can it be developed `on the cheap.''' The entire nation has to get behind it for the long haul.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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