"IT'S important to remember that one space flight does not a space program make," Sally Ride, America's first woman astronaut, said last week after the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. Exulting at the shuttle's safe landing, the nation must heed Ride's warning and ask itself what its goals in outer space are.
At this point, the space shuttle is only a transportation system--some have called it a glorified trucking business--without a client. President Reagan has barred the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from the commercial satellite business, while the Defense Department has switched back to more reliable one-shot rockets. In the meantime several aeronautics firms have filled the gap, readying their own booster rockets for the satellite-launching market.
The federal government has no business spending its dollars on a commercial venture; the purpose behind the space program should be the public good. Ride said last week that commercial pressures on the shuttle to be operational lead to the explosion of the Challenger two years ago. What the space program needs now is a higher goal to shoot for, one that can justify the $11 billion NASA spends every year in these days of tight budgetary constraints.
The next president should turn to the heyday of the American space program--the 1960's and Apollo--for inspiration. Then, NASA had a sense of mission--to put an astronaut on the moon--and a game plan on how to reach its goal. Technologies developed for the Apollo program benefitted the general populace in the form of micro-chips and high-tech insulators. Apollo became synonymous with American can-do ideology: "If we can put a man on the moon, we can do anything."
NASA must return to its roots as an explorer and researcher. A worthy long-term agenda would include the construction of an orbiting space station, an important staging base for a permanent outpost on the moon. Such bases would provide critical facilities for studying the purification of materials and drugs in low-gravity and for observing the changes in the Earth's climate. They could also be stepping-off points for future manned and unmanned missions to other planets in our solar system. A clear mission, with the public in mind, will ensure that the space program is less concerned with commercial conquest than with taking "one giant step for mankind."