THOMAS PAINE'S two-year stint as director of NASA (1969-71) included the most auspicious undertakings in the now 31-year history of the organization. Formed in 1958 as a civilian agency to research and develop manned spaceflight and interplanetary space probes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under Dr. Paine realized its most ambitious goal to date: a man on the moon. ``President Kennedy wanted to unite NASA [with] the private industrial sector and all of academia to form a team that would make America a first-class, space-faring nation,'' says Paine. ``He wanted to open up the new frontier of space as never before. America is still reaping the benefits of those years.''
Somewhere in the mid-'70s, when America ``began questioning a lot of the things it had previously stood for,'' he continues, the vision of NASA began to fade. Paine is committed to re-establishing the vision and commitment NASA enjoyed in the Apollo years. It's a theme he has repeated in speeches, seminars, conferences, and public appearances across America.
``It is now appropriate that President Bush and Congress give NASA a bold new goal for NASA into the 21st century,'' Paine says. That commitment should include more manned exploration of the moon and of Mars as well as the building of interplanetary space stations, he says. ``Otherwise you have an organization that drifts aimlessly year to year - such as NASA is doing now - without the support of the public, the scientific community, or private industry.''
Besides reaching into the solar system to see what riches it holds for Earth, the indirect benefits of investing in space are legion, he says - primarily the push for technological superiority that touches every aspect of life.
The global satellite communication revolution was sparked by the high-reliability electronics developed at NASA in the '60s, Paine says. The Apollo program's need for micro-miniaturized circuitry fueled the table-top computer revolution, for example. Surveillance satellites - now bringing closer the promise of verifiable arms-control treaties - were first developed in the space program.
What NASA needs is a commitment from the top, says Paine. Getting NASA moving again is not really a question of money, says Paine. NASA's budget for the 1990s is roughly $150 billion, about what it was in the '60s, taking inflation into account. It's more a matter of vision, a commitment and energy that must come from the top. ``There is a biblical phrase: `Where there is no vision, the people perish,''' he says, urging anyone who'll listen to lobby Congress and White House.
The main item now on the drawing boards - an international project called Space Station Freedom - has much to recommend it. But it is not of sufficient interest to rally the national vision. ``Oddly enough, President Kennedy had the option of aiming toward a space station,'' says Paine. ``He rejected it as not sufficiently exciting to catalyze an American dream.''