WASHINGTON -- ''Apollo 13'' is a super spellbinder in its depiction of astronaut Jim Lovell and crew, guided by unflappable colleagues on Earth, barely making it back home in their crippled space ship. The stirring message of the film is that, despite the setback, humankind must return to the moon, where man last set foot 25 years ago. But a simple matter gets lost in the high-tech clamor and glory of the failed mission:
If humans hadn't been aboard the ill-fated Apollo craft, the episode would long be forgotten as just another of many bloodless mishaps in the evolution of space technology.
Behind that truth stands a potent but neglected reality of human frailty and space engineering. Humans are a dispensable nuisance in space. They're fragile, expensive to protect against the deadliness of the space environment and easily surpassable in performance by smart instruments that are becoming even more clever all the time. Moreover, beeping boxes and robot crawlers on far-away celestial bodies do not qualify for a national day of mourning if things go wrong.
But, insists the old-line space establishment, high-tech surrogates can't satisfy the indomitable drive to extend human exploration from mother Earth to the new frontier of outer space. In addition, while arguing a rear-guard case against the advance of miniaturized, automated hardware, the advocates of people in space scoffingly disparage the ability of instruments to cope with surprise problems.
Nonetheless, as manned-space enthusiasts reluctantly understand quite clearly, today's instruments are not only very smart, but also their potential for improvement is open-end- ed. Humans, on the other hand, peaked long ago. And if not for the old hands-on aviator mentality that persists at NASA, despite fervent efforts to stamp it out, the manned-space program would long ago have been labeled a relic and consigned to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
The extent and value of personal and national inspiration from manned space exploration defies sure measurement. But the great paradox of space politics today is that the stubborn presence of man in space is crippling NASA's capacity for space exploration with reliable instruments that provide great volumes of valuable scientific information.
With Congress wielding the budget ax on NASA -- and President Clinton's money minders not far behind -- the space agency has been shedding instrument-based planetary exploration programs in deference to the manned space station, a celestial pork barrel, favored both by the Congress and the White House.
The space station looks like a minor drain on NASA; it is slated for only $1.8 billion of the approximately $13 billion NASA will receive next year. But that's just the beginning, since construction of the space station depends on the space shuttle to haul materials aloft. And the space shuttle, NASA's other manned venture, costs about $3 billion a year.
Many unanswered questions radiate from the space station. Shunned by industry, scientific researchers and the military, which all say they have no use for it, the station acquired a political rationale two years ago when the Clinton administration transformed it into a partnership program with the former Soviet space establishment. The new foreign policy angle, however, still leaves unanswered the biggest question: What will they do when they get up there? With plausible answers in short supply, the truth appears to be that keeping up the tradition of man in space is now an end in itself.
To sustain this obsolete passion, NASA is cutting back on unmanned space exploration. But beyond current cutting plans, the General Accounting Office, after a look at the books, says
further reductions will be necessary to match budgets and programs. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have pledged additional cuts in NASA's spending.
Whatever their inspirational value, which doesn't seem to be much these days, the manned programs are killing space exploration. No matter. The space buffs and their political friends have their own priorities. And if they don't make sense, that's too bad.
Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a Washington newsletter.