What's wrong with the American space program?

Pamela Clark

March 15, 1991|By Pamela Clark

WHAT'S WRONG with America's manned space program as it approaches its 30th anniversary? For one thing, new plans for solving NASA's ills seem to surface so frequently that little productive action can ever be taken. This is the major reason NASA's management has been so ineffective while the rest of the space agency's employees have been scrambling in the trenches trying to keep things going. Not surprisingly, the General Accounting Office recently published a report citing the shoddy condition of NASA's physical facilities. But the same can be said of the entire organization.

And how will NASA's new space station plan -- a scaled-down version that will shift the focus of experiments from scientific to commercial research -- affect manned space exploration? The best-case scenario includes a significant delay in establishing permanent scientific outposts on the moon and Mars.

Although previous recommendations have included the apparently sensible plan of supporting both manned and unmanned space exploration in the future, the growing interest in favor of a pay-as-you-go policy is most troubling. Such a policy would turn any possible Mars mission -- for which we must commit our resources now and in a planned fashion -- into a boondoggle.

Sadly, the shuttle program has been just such a boondoggle. The complexity of design and expense were largely driven by the needs of the Department of Defense. Department missions have always taken top priority, and civilian missions were scheduled around them. We must now rely entirely on the shuttle, because we have no other manned-launch capability. That capability was eliminated by NASA management in order to sell the shuttle program in the 1970s.

What about privatization, or running all of NASA like a quasi-government institute such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory? Wouldn't that help motivate NASA employees? It would if the problem were lack of motivation. The real problem is chronic lack of support from upper management. This is particularly true at research institutes like JPL, where everything is based on soft money -- where even senior people who have made outstanding contributions frequently have their funding cut without warning. Those who work for the space program have endured these conditions only because most of them are dedicated to the dream of space exploration.

Many politicians and administrators have supported the space program for the wrong reason -- as a reaction to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Now that the same people have declared the Soviet Union no longer a threat, should our space program receive any less attention? If the reactionaries take control in the Soviet Union again, next week, next month or next year, are we supposed to drop everything and rewrite all of our agendas again? Why not do something purely for the benefit of the people of this country and not because it gives the administration a rationale for its political agendas?

We need a civilian space program based on one or all of the following:

* As an opportunity for constructive involvement with human frontiers -- an important part of our national identity.

* As a basis for world leadership in the constructive use of technology and new ideas.

* As an instrument for understanding the origin of ourselves, our planet and our universe.

The problem is that we cannot have a serious space program without adequate support for equipment and support for new missions. The shuttle program was sold to Congress for about one-tenth of what it would actually cost. To save money, it was insufficiently managed by NASA. It looks like the same mistake is about to be made with the space station program, proving again that you get what you pay for.

The irony is that the American public is willing to pay for a real space program. But the best efforts of NASA's engineers and scientists and the support of the American people have been squandered by cost-cutting measures implemented by misguided bureaucrats who lack vision.

It's time to stop spinning our wheels at the expense of the American people and their dream of space exploration. The future of our nation's space program is in doubt unless we establish competent leadership, able to carry out realistic programs in the face of political adversity.

Pamela Clark is a former NASA employee who teaches chemistry at Albright College in Reading, Pa.

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