Conceding that the United States has fallen behind the Soviet Union in some areas of space exploration, NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher said Friday that if this nation fails to move ahead with plans to build a space station, "we will have abdicated our leadership for the foreseeable future."
Fletcher, who has been stung by charges that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is adrift and losing ground to an energetic Soviet program, told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council that the United States must regain the initiative in space.
"It is no longer a question of whether we should have long-term goals in space," Fletcher said. "The question is can we afford not to lead."
Under Attack in Washington
Fletcher's speech came at a time when NASA is under attack in Washington by some who believe many of the agency's functions should be taken away and given to other agencies, especially the Defense Department.
"It's a very vocal effort," he said in an interview after his World Affairs Council appearance.
"Some people in Defense would like to see us get out of the transportation business," he said, alluding to the space shuttle. "They would take all operations away from NASA and give them to the Defense Department. That would confine NASA to science and technology."
In his speech to the World Affairs Council, he said that is a battle the agency cannot afford to lose.
Unlike military space operations, the civilian program places the nation's technological abilities on center stage, showcasing "our achievements in a way that no other program can, in a way the world can see, can understand and respect," said Fletcher, who was called back to take over NASA--which he had headed once before--in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.
In his formal speech, Fletcher did not say that the Soviets have actually passed the United States in space exploration. He said only that there is a public "perception" that the Soviets are ahead.
But in an interview after the talk, he conceded that perception is at least partly correct.
Ahead 'in Some Areas'
"In some areas they are clearly ahead," he said, particularly since the Soviets hold the record for long endurance space flights--now nearly nine months. "They also have a heavy launch vehicle" like the U.S. rocket that was used to send astronauts to the moon and later "scrapped," he added.
"In other areas, we are way ahead," he said, specifically citing telescopes and instruments used in astrophysics, the study of the mechanics of the universe. "They don't have anything comparable."
In short, he said, "in the unmanned scientific area, we are still ahead, but in manned, extended presence (in space) they are ahead."
Fletcher made a strong pitch for the space station, which would give the nation a permanent presence in space and serve as the cornerstone for programs leading to a permanent station on the moon and possibly manned expeditions to Mars.
"The space station, the key to our future in space, has been mired in congressional budget battles this year," he said in his prepared statement. "Although we hope and expect it will be fully funded for the next fiscal year when the crucial development phase begins, its funding could be cut in future years, imperiling our prospects of having a permanent presence in space by the mid-1990s."
He said later that he would not be surprised if the European Space Agency decides at a critical meeting in Holland next week to delay its participation in the station. The Europeans have been expected to provide a $2 billion habitable module that would be attached to the station.
"They've got too much on their plate," he said, noting that some of the 13 countries that compose the European Space Agency are pushing for other projects, including a French version of the space shuttle. He said that he does not believe Europe will be able to carry out all of its programs and that it would not be surprising to see the Europeans join the station a few years later than had been expected.
He said that he is satisfied with the design of the station and that he expects major contracts to be awarded in the near future.