IN THE 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy set the goal of landing a man on the moon, the nation's space goals were clear-cut, especially since, in the wake of Sputnik, we wanted to make sure we got there ahead of the Russians.
In recent years, however, after wondrous triumphs and tragic failures, the space program has been lagging through a lack of adequate direction and long-range goals. These faults are admirably addressed in an advisory committee's proposals for sweeping changes that promise to give the space program a blueprint for the future.
The committee of industrial and scientific leaders was formed by the Bush administration last summer to assess the work of and goals of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It zeroed in unerringly on the two main problems -- the overemphasis on the space shuttle and the grandiose plans for a space station that could cost as much as $37 billion.
NASA's entire experience with the manned space shuttle, including the 1986 Challenger disaster, has demonstrated how unwise it was to put all our eggs in one basket. It was envisioned as the work horse of the space age, able to cheaply transport astronauts and cargoes -- both military and commercial -- into space. In practice, the shuttle proved neither cheap nor reliable.
Neither military nor commercial space missions now rely on the shuttle, and the advisory panel recommended that NASA also should end its total reliance on it. It urged NASA to stop building new shuttle
craft and to use unmanned rockets for many of its missions.
This would not only provide flexibility and reliability but would minimize the cost in human life.
The shuttle should be used, it said, only when the skills of the crew are needed for the mission -- a sensible guideline.
The space station proposal, which has been decorated like a Christmas tree with assorted objectives, should be cut back in scope and cost, the panel said. Its mission should be limited to studies that cannot be done on Earth, such as the effects of living in space.
It was heartening that the panel put NASA's top priority on scientific research, as opposed to some of the big, flashy projects that have drawn headlines in the past. Manned exploration of the moon and Mars, for example, while something that mankind should seek as a long-term goal, should wait until funds are available.
Study of the Earth's environment from space was cited as a key scientific goal. This does not have the popular appeal of a space station, but it could prove much more scientifically rewarding in the long run.
We are no longer racing the Russians to the moon or Mars. What NASA needs is a balanced space program that concentrates on solid scientific objectives, and that is what the advisory panel has laid out. The administration and Congress appear receptive to the plan, raising hopes that the space program will enter a new, productive era.