New report renews old questions about goals of U.S. space program

December 16, 1990|By Albert Sehlstedt Jr.

"Our national ambitions have greatly outrun our national competence," said Dr. James A. Van Allen, the physicist who discovered the radiation belts around the Earth.

His remark might well have been incorporated in last week's report by a panel of experts that recommended that the nation's space program be substantially altered by de-emphasizing the space shuttle, developing a new class of unmanned rockets to carry payloads aloft and simplifying the planned -- and expensive -- space station.

Dr. Van Allen's remark can be fairly described as well ahead of its time. He made the comment at a meeting of the American Rocket Society in 1961 when he said what some others have said repeatedly since then -- that U.S. goals in space have sometimes exceeded the nation's considerable technological competence or outpaced the resources of its treasury.

For example, a few months after the 1986 Challenger disaster, which killed seven astronauts, the National Academy of Sciences' Space Science Board called for a "balanced fleet" of shuttles and unmanned rockets to guarantee the United States assured access to space in future years.

"We are calling for a drastic change in policy that would once more make [unmanned rockets] the primary system for launching scientific spacecraft," said the Space Science Board's chairman, Dr. Thomas M. Donahue of the University of Michigan.

Last year, two longtime monitors of U.S. space policy, Dr. John M. Logsdon and Dr. James A. Williamson, wrote in Scientific American that the nation had made a "massive policy mistake" by entertaining "grossly unrealistic expectations regarding the shuttle's cost [that] led to a national space program that depended solely on the shuttle for access to space."

On first reading, all of these criticisms, which are directly or indirectly aimed at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, would seem to ignore NASA's enormous accomplishments since its founding in 1958.

Who can forget the six successful landings of men on the moon between 1969 and 1972, or the magnificent images of the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn transmitted to Earth by the Voyager spacecraft, or the space agency's development of the weather satellites that have become a familiar show on the 6 o'clock news every night?

But these critics, and others of like mind, are not recommending the abandonment of the space program or the abolition of NASA.

Some of them are, at least by implication, criticizing the agency for its enormous investments and seeming fascination with launching human beings into space. Of course, these are the missions that make the headlines, embellish NASA's reputation and add pizazz to the testimony of space agency officials when they journey to Capitol Hill to ask for money.

Aside from the public relations value of manned flight, it should be emphasized that today's shuttles can also do what no other spacecraft or robot yet devised can; they and their skilled crews can repair malfunctioning satellites in orbit or snatch them from errant paths and return them to Earth for another flight on another day.

In this connection, last week's report from the 12-member panel headed by Norman A. Augustine, head of the Martin Marietta Corp., noted that the shuttles and their crews do, indeed, have a unique role to play in space operations, but added that shuttles should be used only when a human hand and brain are essential for the task to be accomplished.

The Augustine panel, reporting to Vice President Dan Quayle as head of the National Space Council, also said that NASA should give its highest priority to science. This recommendation is sure to hearten the hundreds of researchers at the nation's universities and other scientific institutions who see the promise of using instrumented spacecraft to help unravel the unsolved ,, riddles of their various disciplines.

These inquiries involve such unspectacular pursuits as the study of cosmic rays, the development of a precise yardstick for measuring the enormous distances in the universe or probing the effect of the sun's electromagnetic energy on the Earth's magnetosphere, that portion of the globe's immediate environment dominated by its magnetic field.

Not many headlines there.

These seemingly pedestrian inquiries also involve months and years of tedious work, results that are often discouraging and, even when success comes, the realization of the scientist that he has added only one or two answers to the seemingly endless list of questions that have nagged the curious mind for centuries.

Yet that is the nature and travail of science that in the long run makes space spectaculars possible.

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