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With the shuttle back in space, the U.S. may begin to reduce the Soviet advantage. In addition to one more flight this year, NASA has scheduled seven for 1989, ten for 1990, nine for 1991 and 13 for 1992. For the time being, the Pentagon remains partly dependent on the shuttle. Its high-resolution "keyhole" photo-reconnaissance satellite, which will be used in part to monitor Soviet compliance with nuclear-arms-reduction treaties, will be aboard the next shuttle. Scientists too have been granted accommodations -- aboard the Atlantis in April 1989, the next opportunity to launch the Magellan mission, and the following October for the Galileo probe. The Hubble telescope may finally get off the ground in February 1990, and Ulysses in October of that year.
Despite the excitement about Discovery's mission, and the talk of the U.S. space program getting back on track, some caution flags were raised last week. "It was an impressive and important first step," says John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "But many of the problems that have been there are still there." Those problems are legion. For starters, the shuttle's complexity and NASA's heightened concern for safety lead many experts to doubt the agency's ability to hold to even its relatively modest schedule of 18 more flights between now and the end of 1990. Richard Truly, the agency's space-flight director, concedes that improvements can be made. "You can't have too much safety in a program," he says. "But you can have procedures that don't contribute to it." And he vows to fix those.
By far the most serious stumbling block to a smooth shuttle operation is the simple fact that the U.S. space program, and thus the purpose of the shuttle itself, is still ill defined and adrift. Unless a strong consensus emerges for clear national priorities in space, the situation is unlikely to change. With the completion of the Discovery mission, NASA will doubtless argue that the shuttle is of crucial importance in building the proposed space station scheduled for the mid-1990s. Just last week the U.S. signed an agreement with eleven Western nations to undertake jointly the construction of the manned | outpost, which would require 20 shuttle flights. Both presidential candidates support the ambitious plans for the station. But neither has yet explained how he would justify its estimated $30 billion cost or said precisely how he thinks it should be used.
Others are just as vague. Should the station be a research and manufacturing facility for performing microgravity experiments and making substances not possible on earth? An assembly platform for the large craft needed to carry humans to Mars? A combination of both? In fact, a station is not needed for former astronaut Sally Ride's "Mission to Planet Earth," a proposal to study the earth's environment and atmosphere from satellites. And some argue that it may not even be needed for another major space project: a permanent manned base on the moon.
What is needed, says Logsdon, is "a purposeful, well-funded, coherent program. That, I think the country wants, and that is waiting for the next President to shape -- early in his Administration." NASA adviser Alan Ladwig agrees and urges "a national commitment to space. It's up to the White House and Congress to lead. It's not NASA's job anymore."