THE SPACE program has been the subject of much dispute ever since the end of the Apollo program that put men on the moon. Its goals have been ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. Particularly in recent years, its undertakings have been more ambitious than its budget. Its reputation for flawless execution has also been compromised. The investigations that followed the Challenger disaster showed that, contrary to widespread assumption, NASA had long had major defects in its technical and administrative procedures. The Hubble telescope setback this year reinforced the sense that the agency had lost its edge.

For a series of interconnected reasons, from its scientific value to its effect on national prestige, the space program is too important to be abandoned. Yet it is also too important -- and too large a budget item -- to be left in its current state. A White House advisory commission drawn largely from the space establishment has now issued what is meant to be a clarifying and restorative report. The report's every recommendation is unlikely to be followed. But if its example is followed, in that the goals of the program are rethought, it will have proved a useful document.

It urges that scientific research become the emphasis and rationale of the program; there are suggestions that this will be easier if and as the program's semi-military applications fade. The program should be used on "missions to and from planet Earth," in roughly that order -- to study and monitor the global climate and environmental change while gradually preparing on the basis of "go as you pay" for a manned mission to Mars. In pursuing both objectives the panel suggests it will be possible to rely less on the space shuttle (by using more unmanned rockets to launch cargoes into space) and to scale back the proposed space station, the purpose of which has never been as clear as its likely cost.

The immediate goals of the space program would be less elaborate than now, but more feasible and clearly useful. Even so the panel looks to a budget expanding at a rate of 10 percent a year after inflation; for the next few years, at least, that is unlikely. The panel proposes a scaled-down space program that would be focused and affordable without renouncing the long-term goal of manned space exploration. That seems about right.