For nearly a quarter of a century, the U. S. space program enjoyed what can appropriately be termed a “golden age” From the launch of Earth-orbiting satellites, to the visits by robotic spacecraft to Venus and Mars, to the stunning achievement of landing the first human beings on the Moon, the many successes of the space program were exciting and awe-inspiring. The United States was clearly and unquestionably the leader in space exploration, and the nation reaped all the benefits of pride, international prestige, scientific advancement, and technological progress that such leadership provides.
However, in the aftermath of the Challenger accident, reviews of our space program made its shortcomings starkly apparent. The United States’ role as the leader of spacefaring nations came into serious question. The capabilities, the direction, and the future of the space program became subjects of public discussion and professional debate.
The U.S. civilian space program is now at a crossroads, aspiring toward the visions of the National Commission on Space but faced with the realities set forth by the Rogers Commission. NASA must respond aggressively to the challenges of both while recognizing the necessity of maintaining a balanced space program within reasonable fiscal limits.
Two fundamental, potentially inconsistent views have emerged. Many people believe that NASA should adopt a major, visionary goal. They argue that this would galvanize support, focus NASA programs, and generate excitement. Many others believe that NASA is already over committed in the 1990s; they argue that the space agency will be struggling to operate the Space Shuttle and build the Space Station, and could not handle another major program.
Both views reflect concern over the current status of the space program, but each deals with only one aspect of the problem. The space program needs a long-range direction; it also needs the fundamental capabilities that would enable it to move in that direction. A single goal is not a panacea—the problems facing the space program must be met head-on, not oversimplified. But if there are no goals, or if the goals are too diffuse, then there is no focus to the program and no framework for decisions.
The goals of the civilian space program must be carefully chosen to be consistent with the national interest and also to be consistent with NASA’s capabilities. NASA alone cannot set these goals, but NASA must lead the discussion, present technically feasible options, and implement programs to pursue those goals which are selected.
We must ask ourselves: “Where do we want to be at the turn of the century?” and "What do we have to do now to get there?" Without an eye toward the future, we flounder in the present. It is riot too early to crystallize our vision of the space program in the year 2000. A clear vision provides a framework for current and future programs: it enables us to know which technologies to pursue, which launch vehicles to develop, and which features to incorporate into our Space Station as it evolves.
Leadership in space does not require that the U. S. be preeminent in all areas of space enterprise. The widening range of space activities and the increasing number of spacefaring nations make it virtually impossible for any country to dominate in this way. It is, therefore, essential for America to move promptly to determine its priorities and to pursue a strategy which would restore and sustain its leadership in the areas deemed important.
The Rogers Commission, in its concluding thoughts, states that NASA “constitutes a national resource that plays a critical role in space exploration and development. It also provides a symbol of national pride and technological leadership. The Commission applauds NASA's spectacular achievements of the past and anticipates impressive achievements to come.” Only with a clear strategy in place, and its goals for the future defined and developed, will the country be able to regain and retain leadership in space.