The American space program, one of this country's proudest achievements, is in shambles. The explosion of the Challenger last January is the immediate cause of the problems, but they go much deeper. Fixing the shuttle by redesigning its rockets will not put the space program back on track. It will not make up for the lack of vision, purpose and commitment at the highest levels of government that has hampered mankind's exploration and use of space for more than a decade.
In the 1960s, when getting to the moon was a major national goal, there was enormous enthusiasm for the space program from the White House down. No project since then has captured the same popular attention or enjoyed the same political support. The current Administration clearly does not want to abandon space, but neither is it prepared to spend more money on it. In this era of budget cutting the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is lucky to hold its own. But it cannot dream big dreams without more money.
Not that NASA is blameless. It has been guilty of over-reliance on the shuttle in the face of mounting evidence that the spaceplane would never achieve its financial and technological goals. For years the space agency has devoted the lion's share of its budget to the shuttle, to the exclusion of virtually everything else, and is now paying the price for this mistake. It has neither the shuttle nor other significant space activities to take its place.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, which planned, launched and coordinated the unmanned explorations of the solar system and beyond that have thrilled the world and taught scientists more about the universe than had been learned in all previous history.
It is startling to realize that JPL has not launched a single new space probe in the 1980s, and, given the realities of the space program, is unlikely to launch anything for the rest of this decade. Already there are early retirements and departures by key space scientists who are tired of waiting for an outcome that is at best uncertain. "The U.S. planetary program has collapsed," says Bruce Murray, the former head of JPL.
For NASA the major long-term project is the space station, a worthwhile endeavor that unfortunately will usurp the agency's budget just as the shuttle has done. NASA is still committed to manned operations in space even though it is obvious that, for many tasks, unmanned vehicles using smart robots can accomplish as much at less cost. Replacing the Challenger is an unnecessary expense that will continue to starve the agency's other projects.
Meantime, the Galileo, Voyager and Magellan planetary probes remain on hold, as are the Gamma Ray Observatory and Cosmic Background Explorer projects of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. No one knows when the Hubble Space Telescope, already years delayed, is likely to get off the ground. And JPL's proposal for a Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby is even further in the future.
The exploration of space remains an important goal, and should regain its position near the top of the nation's priorities. Too easily we become inured to the achievements of the last 25 years, and we forget their place in the history of civilization. It is in our genes to know, to explain and to explore, and the space program is the vehicle for doing that.
NASA should move toward the development of large expendable rockets, such as the Air Force's Titan 34D7, that are powerful enough to loft deep-space payloads that will not be on the shuttle anytime soon. It should rectify its mistake in developing the shuttle to the exclusion of everything else, even if that means delaying the replacement orbiter or the space station. It should commit itself to lofty goals befitting its role on the frontiers of technology and exploration.