Lost in space, NASA needs to reorder its priorities

Leonard Koppett

August 24, 1992|By Leonard Koppett

THE same sleazy tactic used by the Sierra Club some time ago, a fund-raising plea masquerading as a survey questionnaire, has been adopted by the National Space Society, evidently a well-intentioned lobbying outfit based in Washington.

To the extent that this organization, whose board of governors is loaded with recognizable names of astronauts, scientists and politicians (along with Bob Hope), is sincerely interested in promoting the exploration of space and America's leading role in it, I'm all for it.

But to the extent that it is offering support for the current NASA program, and lobbying Congress for money in its behalf, it should be ashamed of itself.

I see manned exploration of space (should I be saying "personned exploration"?) as necessary, worth great expense, inspiring, inevitable human destiny and in the national interest.

But the current direction of the space shuttle program and plans for a space station are simply self-serving protection of a bureaucracy/industry combine that got on the wrong track two decades ago. It uses the highest and most costly technology ever devised by humans and a huge number of incredibly well-trained and superbly competent people to perform the functions of a moving van company, while preparing a space-station project that probably won't work and wouldn't do much if it did.

Almost everything of scientific and commercial value done by the manned program since the moon was reached and abandoned (there's planning for you!) could be done as well or better, for a fraction of the cost, by unmanned, robotized machines. In fact, ,, that's how we got the vast majority of all the scientific knowledge we've gained off Earth (and about Earth) so far.

The proper role for humans in the space program, at this stage, is elaborate and long-range study of the effect of space on humans.

Obviously, no significant future activity in orbit, on the moon or elsewhere off planet can succeed until we find out if and how humans can live and operate effectively in so foreign an environment.

We don't know that yet. But we certainly don't get enough worthwhile data from two-week excursions in a tin can.

The Russians collected much more information about what happens to people living in orbit for weeks and months, and we should certainly integrate our research with theirs (now that we consider them non-threatening and they have run out of money). But the design of our own program should be concentrated -- and should have been concentrated, since we got to the moon 23 years ago -- on finding out exactly what prolonged weightlessness, radiation exposure and other conditions totally foreign to millions of years of earthside evolution do to people. Until we learn the full scope of those problems and find solutions, all other grandiose plans about orbiting factories, missions to Mars and building a moon base mean nothing.

A sensible space program, therefore, would concentrate all manned activity on studying the problems of humans in that hostile environment, not picking up dribs and drabs of inadequate information as byproducts of brief and pointless missions.

There are many arguments floating around the space controversy (floating because they're weightless?) that seem to me false or misleading:

* "The fallout from NASA developments is of great civilian and commercial benefit to all."

You mean we couldn't develop wonderful products (and they are wonderful) in the same labs if NASA didn't order them? Why not invent leakproof pens, scratch-resisting glass and laser heart surgery for their own sake?

* "Only humans in space suits could have pulled in that communications satellite when it had to be fixed."

Wouldn't it have been cheaper and easier simply to send up a replacement satellite?

* "For years, America led the world into space. But now it is argued that other countries have equaled, or even surpassed, America's space prowess." (This one is in the National Space Society's questionnaire.)

Two points: (1) As I remember it, the Soviets "led" the way into space; what we did was follow and surpass. (2) If we no longer lead and our program has been the exclusive province of NASA all along, doesn't that suggest something about NASA's effectiveness?

But some opposing arguments are just as silly. "How can we pour billions of dollars into space when there are so many vital unmet needs on the ground?"

We haven't sent a single penny "into space." All those billions are spent right here on Earth, supporting millions of individuals and countless communities.

The trouble with the space program is the same as the trouble with the supercollider in Texas: too much money concentrated on too narrow a scientific benefit at the expense of much more and better science that could be done with some of the same money. NASA's thinking (like much Big Science) is focused on maintaining appropriations. I wish they'd think harder and better about what they're actually trying to do.

Leonard Koppett is editor emeritus of the Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto, Calif.

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