MIKHAIL GORBACHEV and Carl Sagan think it would be a fine idea. Secretary of State George Shultz is reported to be wary of it. The NASA authorization bill recently passed by the US House of Representatives mandates the establishment of a commission to study it. The Congressional Budget Office says it would be awfully expensive. ``It'' is a joint Soviet-US mission to Mars.
As a vehicle to reduce tensions and increase cooperation between the superpowers, the idea is attractive. Yet it will be difficult to debate the idea on its merits because of the Reagan administration's unwillingness to come up with either a coherent space program or the resources to accomplish it.
The proposal for a joint Soviet-US mission - whether to Mars, the moon, or the solar system's outer limits - can be viewed as yet another attempt to get this administration to decide what it seeks to accomplish in space. Other attempts to suggest goals for the space program, such as the National Commission on Space and the Ride Commission, have met with remarkable indifference at the White House. The administration opposed the House-passed NASA authorization because it felt any long-range planning would inhibit future flexibility, a complaint not heard on long-range defense spending.
While the Soviet Union systematically and productively extends its presence in space, the US spends billions of dollars on a space shuttle system which is not even flying. An administration which sees grave threats to national security in Nicaragua cannot rouse itself to respond to the growing Soviet preeminence in space or explain why the US should not be concerned.
It would appear that President Reagan's approach to space exploration and development is to agree to any high-tech proposal that comes to his attention - be it a hyperspace plane, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or a space station - without giving any thought as to how it will be paid for. These programs are enormously complex, requiring an enormous expenditure of money and technical resources. No effort has been made to prioritize them or relate them to an overall national policy. At the same time, the continuing mission delays resulting from the Challenger disaster point to the dangers of the growing interdependence of various aspects of the current space program. If one component fails, the repercussions are immediate and widespread.
The closest thing to an articulated space policy has been a vague call for privatization or commercialization of space. This is not a call for orbiting fast food stands, but rather a notion that the private sector can do everything NASA can do and do it better and cheaper. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), with some understatement, refers to the idea as ``untested.''
Increased private involvement in space is, nonetheless, a subject worthy of public debate; it touches on the relationship between government and the private sector. Unfortunately, the only parties that appear interested are those with a direct financial stake.
The Reagan administration, for whatever reasons, has appeared less than enthusiastic in following through on the various reports suggesting a more vigorous and goal-oriented space program. CBO in a recent report entitled ``The NASA Program in the 1990s and Beyond'' has estimated that ``aggressive new manned initiatives, such as a Moon base or a Mars mission, could increase the NASA budget to $30 billion annually by the year 2000.'' By comparison, the NASA authorization for FLY 1989, recently passed by the US House, is $11.5 billion.
Thirty billion dollars a year is not pocket change. The questions being avoided by the administration are fundamental ones: What are US national goals in space - both long and short-term? What other programs must be cut to finance them?
The American future in space is an important topic for debate. Unfortunately, no one seems to be debating. New programs spring up with each budget only to wither on the vine due to lack of follow-through.
Let us hope that a new administration, whether GOP or Democrat, will view the space program in the context of a coherent, overall national strategy.
Rep. Don J. Pease (D) of Ohio, is a former member of the House Science and Technology Committee.