It was altogether fitting that last month's discovery of the first solid evidence for the existence of black holes -- incredibly dense remnants of collapsed stars whose gravity is so powerful not even light can escape -- was also the first major scientific contribution made by the Hubble Space Telescope. The discovery more than vindicated NASA's most optimistic hopes for the orbiting telescope, as well as the time and money expended in repairing its flawed main mirror last year. The deft handling of the repair mission and Hubble's superb performance have finally restored the agency's tarnished image to something like the luster it enjoyed during the glory days of the Apollo Moon landings.
Still, NASA faces a difficult future. The agency's new administrator, Dan Goldin, has been charged by President Clinton with redefining the agency's mission in an era of shrinking budgets. Mr. Goldin has increased the proportion of NASA's budget devoted to science and technology projects while trimming funds for human space flight programs.
Mr. Goldin has emphasized smaller projects with relatively quick turnaround times, as opposed to programs requiring 10- and 15-year commitments like the $1 billion Mars Observer spacecraft, which apparently exploded last August shortly after starting its journey. Long lead times produce what Mr. Goldin calls a "scientific entitlement mentality" in which programs exist to keep NASA personnel employed rather than to produce new knowledge. Accordingly, he has downsized the proposed space station while pumping funds into developing new satellites and robotic spacecraft. He's also shutting down underused NASA facilities.
Such economy moves are imperative given the current deficit-cutting mood in Congress. They are also prudent given that no country can really "go it alone" in space anymore; some form of international cooperation must evolve in which the staggering costs of research and development are shared. Yet ironically, America's research and development effort is shrinking as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product at just the time funds for other nations' programs are increasing.
This disparity is cause for great concern to Mr. Goldin, who asks how America can maintain its technological dominance -- and economic prosperity -- if it is unwilling to invest in its own future. NASA has always symbolized the best of American optimism and ingenuity. How well NASA is able to nurture that spirit in today's climate of fiscal austerity and short-term, bottom-line judgments may well foreshadow the nation's fortunes in the high-tech world of the 21st century.