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Redesigning the U.S. space program.

Redesigning the U.S. space program

President Bush's proposal that NASA send astronauts to Mars in 2019 won approval in principle from a panel assessing the future of the U.S. space program, but the group declined to support a specific date. "The long-term objective of human exploration of Mars should be tailored or respond to the availability of funding, rather than adhering to a rigid schedule," the panel concludes in a summary of its report released on Dec. 10.

The 12-member group, appointed by NASA in August after the discovery of the flawed Hubble telescope mirror and the hydrogen leaks that grounded the shuttle fleet throughout the summer, urges a shifting of NASA priorities to place primary emphasis on science. While noting that the nation needs a balanced space program, the panelists assert that science, "in our judgment, ranks above space stations, aerospace planes, manned missions to the planets, and many other pursuits which often receive greater visibility."

The report cites wide public support for the U.S. space program but notes a lack of national consensus about its goals. "No two individuals seem able to agree upon what that space program should be," it states. "Further, those immediately involved in the program often seem least inclined to compromise for the common good." Addressing the controversy over whether to abandon such manned activities as the shuttle and space station, the panelists say: "Our answer is a resounding 'no.'"

However, they do urge NASA to redesign the planned space station and slow the project's development to reduce its complexity and growing cost -- a move already ordered by Congress this fall. The report also prods the space agency to defer or even cancel its envisioned purchase of a fifth space shuttle, and to reduce the present dependence on the shuttle fleet by adding an unmanned version for all missions except those with a specific need for onboard personnel.

The panelists conclude that the "justifying objectives" of the space station "should be reduced to two, primarily life sciences and secondarily microgravity experimentation." They call the station "essential" for studies of life sciences, "for there is simply no Earthbound substitute." Microgravity research is not "sufficient justification for the Space Station in and of itself," but is "an altogether valid element of America's economic competitiveness program," the report states.

NASA plans to begin a "Mission to Planet Earth" next year with satellite observations and increased research on global environmental change. While approving the idea, the panel recommends that the agency place that program on "a 'go-as-you-pay' basis -- tailoring its schedule to match the availability of funds."

Even with the envisioned cost-cutting, several of the report's recommendations are likely to prove expensive. For example, the panel urges NASA to provide a "personnel module" that can return space station occupants to Earth in case of emergency; the module might also bring up new crews if shuttle malfunctions arise. To pay for such activities, the panel proposes designing the space program so that its "real growth" (allowing for inflation) will not exceed 10 percent per year through the end of the decade. After that, NASA must hold the growth rate with savings helpd from redesigning the space station and foregoing a fifth shuttle.

The report also recommends changing federal regulations that now limit the salaries of NASA scientists and other officials, so that the agency can compete with the private-sector.

Headed by Norman R. Augustine, chairman of Martin Marietta Corp., the panel of scientists and aerospace executives included former NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine.
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Title Annotation:a panel appointed by NASA reports on the future in space
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 22, 1990
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