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NASA's manned space station -- back to the drawing board

WHAT does the future hold for the United States civilian space program? What are the nation's goals in space and what are the best means to achieve them? Fair-enough questions, and you could reasonably assume that such concerns are given great weight by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in drawing up plans for its proposed $8 billion manned space station.

But you would be wrong.

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That, at least, seems to be the view of the Congress's Office of Technology Assessment in its recent report on ``Civilian Space Stations and the US Future in Space.'' The report acknowledges that acquiring some sort of ``space infrastructure'' -- that is, a space station and the various support elements required to construct and maintain it -- is ``a key to maintaining America's leadership in space.'' It states, however, that ``the present NASA `space station' concept is not likely to result in the facility most appropriate for advancing US interest into the second quarter-century of the Space Age.''

What's going on here? Hasn't NASA boasted about the research and time that have gone into the space-station concept? Don't we know what we're getting for the $8 billion or so to be spent on this project? Is NASA more concerned with ``turf protection'' than charting a course for the space program?

In point of fact, there are good, compelling reasons for building some sort of permanent space facility -- either manned or unmanned -- which would serve a variety of tasks. The dispute is over NASA's idea of what such a facility should entail and how to go about achieving it.

The basic problem seems to be that NASA's space station is not being designed to meet a well-recognized, popularly accepted, and easily understood need; rather, functions are being created to fit into the initial concept. NASA, possibly taking a lesson from Congress, took a ``Christmas tree'' approach, in which it asked various segments of the public, government, and scientific communities what use they could make of a manned space station. The agency thereby created a large ``wish list'' of projects, each with its own constituency supporting the overall space station, so as to realize its own goals.

NASA lacks a vision of the future: a sense of mission more substantial than big, expensive projects with little rationale beyond the mere accomplishment of them.

NASA apparently wants to build a manned space station because it can build a manned space station. The agency has an enviable track record of planning and completing large, expensive, and time-consuming manned space projects -- the Apollo and space shuttle programs, for example. Such programs have historically consumed the lion's share of NASA's professional staff and budget, often to the detriment of smaller programs, which become vulnerable to budget cuts. Core science and exploration activities were mandated in NASA's founding charter but generally appear to be justifications tacked on to the big programs rather than guiding principles concerning which programs to undertake. The Apollo lunar missions, for example, were not scientific endeavors; rather, they were remarkable technological achievements which coincidentally served some scientific purposes.

There are indeed good reasons for building some sort of space station -- life science and materials science experiments, more efficient transport staging for future space exploration, servicing of satellites, and so on. These considerations do not, however, argue persuasively for the particular approach that NASA is pushing.

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Why then is NASA pursuing it? One reason might be simply that it is the sort of program that NASA handles so well.

The budget and staff buildup required by this program nicely match the reductions envisioned in the shuttle program as it becomes more of an operational and less of a developmental program. The space-station project provides an outlet for NASA's considerable professional assets, while commanding public attention and keeping a high profile for the agency.

The traditional approach of researching, building, and operating everything at the taxpayer's expense may not be the best alternative anymore. Rapid changes, already beginning, may make NASA's whole funding and technological approach obsolete before long. The private sector and other nations are increasingly eager to provide space assets, not merely ride piggyback on NASA's shoulders, as the recent agreement with West Germany demonstrates. Still, the ever-present dangers of budget retrenchments and public dissatisfaction are not being recognized.

Perhaps the best hope for a fresh look lies with the National Commission on Space, mandated in this year's authorization bill for NASA. This commission, made up of representatives from NASA, the State Department, the Defense Department, Congress, the National Science Foundation, and other government agencies, has been charged with identifying ``long-range goals, opportunities, and policy options for US civilian space activity for the next 20 years.''

The hearings, deliberations, and findings of this commission could go a long way toward reopening the debate on what the nation needs and expects from its civilian space programs. Are we concerned primarily with technological achievements, for whatever reasons and at whatever costs; increasing knowledge and understanding of our world and universe; standing taller than the Soviets; or commercializing space and turning it into some sort of giant K mart in the sky?

One hopes the commission will ask the sort of questions we should before we spend billions of dollars on a manned space station that may serve many useful functions, but that may not be the best way to achieve them.

US Rep. Don J. Pease (D) of Ohio is a former member of the House Science and Technology Committee.