The Post's Aug. 20 editorial and recommendations for "America's Future in Space" are right on the mark -- as is Sally Ride's report. However, I would like to comment a little further about what Dr. Ride has correctly identified as the most press-ing problem impeding this nation's leadership in space: adequate and appropriate Earth-to-orbit transportation.

In the early 1960s, when crucial Apollo decisions were being made, I felt there was a strong consensus among knowledgeable people and companies that the best way to go to the moon was by using the existing and proven Saturn I to establish an orbital base of the type that Dr. Ride advocates for a sustained, meaningful national space program. A smaller group of people -- including myself -- felt that we should also have made an independent side bet on a fully reusable, two-stage launch system.

In addition to getting to the moon on President Kennedy's schedule and budget, we would have become a space-faring nation on a large scale, dating from the 1960s. Within its own context, the actual Apollo program was certainly worthwhile -- as well as being adventure of the highest kind. But it was also a 20-year detour from the kind of space program to which we are only now aspiring.

Apollo was followed by Sky Lab and the Space Shuttle. Sky Lab had to be abandoned because of inadequate Earth-to-orbit transportation. Because of what I feel were erroneous assumptions regarding the cost of developing reusable launch vehicles, several fully reusable, two-stage launch systems proposed by major aerospace companies were rejected in favor of the partially reusable Space Shuttle design that I and many others felt had zero potential for low-cost access to space.

Sputnik was certainly the main driver behind the consensus in late 1957 that the U.S. space program should be greatly accelerated. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the Jet Propulsion Lab and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency/Huntsville were the primary contenders for the job of being the new national space agency. However, while JPL and ABMA also enjoyed excellent reputations, NACA's highly respected image as a selfless, superbly effective support and research agency stood out. When NACA became NASA (and I was an employee of both in the 1950s), something was certainly gained -- but over the years it also appears that something very important has been lost.

Unfortunately, some of the strongest original advocates of NACA's getting the job have since felt obligated to become some of NASA's most vociferous critics. Why? I think the main reason is the straying of NASA from its original NACA-like balanced emphasis on: a) basic aeronautical and space research; b) strong, noncompeting support for industrial and military organizations that are ready to carry out technologically mature development projects and operations; and c) cutting-edge leadership on ambitious space goals requiring a national commitment.

Until the Challenger tragedy, NASA appeared to have become increasingly operationally oriented -- to the detriment of basic aeronautical and space research; to the detriment of appropriate long-range goals; and to the detriment of relations with commercial and military organizations now capable of carrying out routine, cost-effective transportation to Earth orbit.

LEN CORMIER

Corporate President

and Space Van Project Manager

Third Millennium, Inc.

Washington

I must disagree with the editorial concerning Sally Ride's prescription for space exploration. Her ideas will fail for precisely the same reason that all ideas have more or less failed since President Kennedy's initial decision to put mankind on the moon. Her plan represents the logical thoughts of a technician, not the conceptual intuition of the dreamer.

President Kennedy's push to the moon captured the hearts and minds of the American people, and they became more than willing to pay for it -- even though such a rush to space was illogical and inefficient from the technician's standpoint. Look back in the files. Countless articles from the scientific community derided the haste of President Kennedy's leap. He didn't want a step-by-step process. He wanted to go for it! So did the American people.

Sally Ride's step-by-step process is not good enough to capture the American people. What is needed to dedicate the people to the effort is a concept, such as putting mankind on Mars -- being the first at something big.

If NASA really wanted to grab the American people, the first man on Mars would be a woman; in fact, a black woman would be best of all. Talk about changing perceptions. Such a thing could inspire a whole race of people to believe more deeply in their inherent abilities and demonstrate to the Luddites of the world that that belief was justified and earned.

GILBERT R. REED III

Alexandria