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Our Future in Space

August 30, 1987

From the perspective of an astronaut comes a plan of action for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on a galaxy of space projects to captivate the nation's imagination, challenge its creativity and whet NASA's appetite for more space travel. As her last official act before switching from space to arms control, Sally K. Ride, America's first woman in space, has filed a report describing what she and her colleagues think can return the American space program to its proper place in the cosmos.

Ride's report opens with two important caveats. First, she warns that one nation alone can no longer dominate space exploration. France and other European countries, Japan, the Soviet Union and China all have plans to probe the solar system. The United States cannot expect to reenter space alone and unchallenged. Second, U.S. efforts to regain preeminence in space exploration, Ride cautions, should not hinge on any single endeavor. NASA cannot resurrect the space program on the boosters of one successful project. Any attempt to try such an approach would dissipate the nation's scientific capacities.

At a minimum, she writes, the U.S. space program can avoid losing completely its pioneering lead in critical areas of space exploration to foreign competition. At best, the country can support an array of projects that will ensure its presence on the cutting edge of cosmic research. A space station, a moon base, deep space probes and a trip to Mars top Ride's list of priorities. They cannot be accomplished overnight, to be sure, but they are not beyond the nation's technical and intellectual grasp. The program could build incrementally, with an initial space station, for example, launching a number of space ventures. Such projects could lead to other ventures that now are just glimmers of the imagination.

But the American space effort must balance imagination with reality. NASA cannot tolerate,or even survive, climbing the same staircase of decisions that led to the Challenger disaster. Common sense, even when applied to something as abstract as the universe, must be NASA's chief management tool. A steady approach to Earth-to-orbit deliveries should replace the scheduling pressures and the commercial burdens that frustrated and ultimately crippled the shuttle program. The increased use of expendable rockets would relieve the already considerable pressure that is beginning to mount again on the shuttle program. In particular, the burden falls onto NASA's chief, James C. Fletcher, to restore the agency to its earlier professionalism. In effect, NASA's future depends on how he responds to Ride's challenge.

One of Ride's more important recommendations concerns education. In a country in which many needs call out for attention, it is easy to question the benefits of space exploration. Support and understanding from the public are as necessary to NASA's success as are patrons in high places. Americans must be constantly reminded that space research stimulates all manner of scientific, economic and technological progress. The best way to remind them is with a constellation of space ventures that work. That is NASA's ultimate challenge--one that it must start to meet soon, because it cannot long have one without the other.

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