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US space consensus

A congressional study of the USSR's space program has shown that the Soviets and the old Star Trek TV series share a viewpoint. Both consider space to be humanity's ''final frontier.'' Yet, as a recent series in this newspaper reported, the US remains unsure whether this concept should guide national policy or remain a theme for science fiction.

It is time for the US to replace its chronic uncertainty with a widely supported set of long-term space goals.

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The Soviets' sense of manifest space-destiny has given them a strategic direction, which is leading toward permanent habitation in space. This is likely soon to be represented by a manned space station. Eventually, it could lead to outposts on the moon and Mars.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would like to move in a similar direction. But in the absence of a national consensus on what the US should do in space, NASA planning is hesitant and softly focused.

Clearly, the administration needs to provide leadership, the kind that will stimulate an informed national debate in Congress and among the public. It should not merely plump for a costly program - such as a specific manned-space-station concept - which could become a political issue in this election year. The future of the nation's space effort should be the subject of a bipartisan search for a viable policy that future administrations and Congresses will support. In a democracy, commitment to such an undertaking requires a sure consensus.

Certainly it would be wise to lay the ground work for a future space station. But to go beyond this - especially to give NASA the stable funding which it seems to need - requires the kind of national commitment to long-term goals which has yet to be realized.

Thus the US space effort is at a critical point. The administration should lead the country toward a long-term space strategy.