ANYONE interested in America's troubled space program should read the report just filed by astronaut Sally K. Ride after an 11-month study commissioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Titled "Leadership and America's Future in Space," the report is a concise assessment of where this country's space effort has been directed -- and shouldn't have been -- and where it logically and realistically should go next. The result is an incisive examination of the politics, possibilities and pitfalls of the space program. It bluntly points up a shortfall of leadership on two fronts: in international space efforts as well as in America's own program.
The U.S space effort lacks a coherent long-term policy; the administration has not provided one, and Congress hasn't either. As the Ride report states, neither the old space races against the Russians nor the more recent drifting among various goals will do now. The study analyzes four possible undertakings for NASA and suggests that the United States, while deferring a "race" to Mars, should concentrate on a more "natural progression" via the moon. First steps would be to improve basic space transportation and technology: "Until we can get people and cargo to and from orbit reliably and efficiently, our reach will exceed our grasp." This strategy would emphasize improvements in low-Earth-orbit maneuvers, which then could be used to "study our own world and explore others."
The logical next stop: the moon -- "a conceptual leap outward from Earth" that "has not been fully explored." This initiative, picking up where the Apollo era left off 15 years ago, would "send the next generation of pioneers to pitch their tents, establish supply lines and gradually build a scientifically and technically productive outpost suitable for long-term habitation." The first steps toward "living off the land" would be to extract oxygen from the lunar soil, for propellant and life-support systems as well as for construction materials.
NASA chief James C. Fletcher, who has expressed support for a new manned mission as soon as possible, praised the Ride report but said that it will be used as a basis for further study and that his agency will not necessarily adopt all its recommendations. But how much more study is required? As the report points out, questions about space policy cannot be answered "by NASA alone. But NASA should lead the discussion, propose technically feasible options and make thoughtful recommendations." The guidelines for this inquiry are already set forth -- right in this report.