A new report by a presidentially appointed panel of experts supports the surprising conclusion that the country's space program is an unexpected casualty of the end of the Cold War.
NASA's public woes, from Challenger to Hubble, were less on the Augustine committee's mind than the space agency's long drift in search of a mission and its symptoms of what Robert M. White, president of the National Academy of Engineering, calls "an acute case of giantism." Both are deeply rooted in NASA's origins.
Listen to Burt Edelson, a former associate administrator of NASA, describe how it looked from inside the agency. "I recall that we went to a blackboard ... and we listed the purposes of the civil space program. Up at the top of the board we put national image, and we talked about that in terms of prestige among other nations ... and a race with the Russians. ... That was obviously the top priority. It was the main purpose of the space program. Then we listed underneath that, and we really couldn't agree, but we listed the following words: exploration, science, applications, technology, spin-offs and societal benefits."
The agency was, in short, conceived as a Cold War weapon whose purpose was to beat the Russians into space. Everything else, including all the reasons put forward to justify the space program today, was just background noise. In that non-fighting war, where victory had to be won by proxy, symbolism counted as much as pure technological milestones. Therefore, space flight had to be manned. No one remembers that the Russians beat us to the moon with an unmanned orbiter. What history records is Neil Armstrong's breathtaking "giant leap for mankind."
As the Cold War waned, no other motive could replace the drive of superpower competition, though the leaders of both countries were the last to realize it. Bruce Murray, former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a leading proponent of space programs, notes that in the past several years both presidents Gorbachev and Bush have tried to give space a new priority, and both have been rebuffed. And so, in Murray's words, "the first great era of space exploration, which was born in the Cold War, and declined as the Cold War ran down, is ending when the Cold War ends -- now."
The currency of national prestige has changed also. Symbolism and romance count for less on the international scene than the bottom line. Yet NASA remains committed to manned operations, making everything it has recently attempted too big, complex and expensive. In 1980 the goal for the space shuttle was 50 flights per year at a cost of $15 million-to-$20 million per launch. The actual average has been four flights per year. The cost is now $400 million per flight, the highest launch cost of any nation. Despite its continuing, prestigious technological preeminence, the United States now faces humiliating decisions of whether to lift its satellites and astronauts on someone else's -- even Russian -- rockets.
The panel didn't mince words. Drastically cut back or cancel grandiose plans for space stations, aerospace planes and manned missions to other planets, it said. Develop an economically competitive launch vehicle to replace the shuttle. Focus instead on unmanned scientific exploration and the study of environmental change on Earth.
Important questions remain. Can any agency, committed for years and professional lifetimes to one rationale and course of action, suddenly admit error and change course? It's asking a lot. Can NASA let go of the shuttle, relegate manned missions to a minor role and cure itself of giantism? Even the agency's program for monitoring global change is badly infected. The Earth Observing System (EOS) is far too big, too costly and too inflexible, and it threatens to leave an irreparable gap in measurements essential to understanding greenhouse warming. Scientists have been criticizing EOS for some time without much response from NASA.
Can space exploration survive for long without a manned program in its future, or does the lure of exploration, no matter how exciting its discoveries, depend on the risk to individuals? Would anybody care, asked the Augustine group, if an instrument package reached the summit of Everest? The Voyager probe on its Grand Tour of the solar system, an opportunity that arises only once every 175 years, has succeeded beyond its designers' wildest hopes, reaching all the way to Neptune, yet Voyager's superb achievement is little known. There are great mysteries still to be fathomed in space. Is a manned program the necessary price of admission? Would it be worth it? A forthright debate is overdue.
And, what, if anything, can replace Cold War competition to justify the costs of space exploration? Some hope that the prospect of international cooperation is the answer. Perhaps, though I doubt it. Visions of the new world order imagine multilateral cooperation playing an unprecedented role in peacekeeping, trade and environmental management. Shared benefits should sustain that degree of teamwork, though it is by no means a sure thing. But is cooperation for its own sake ever a positive inducement? The answers may have relevance well beyond whatever happens in space. The writer, a vice president of World Resources Institute, writes this column independently for The Post.