American Options in Space

February 18, 1983

Report Outline
Shuttle's Commercial Lure
Militarization of Space
Directions of Space Science
Special Focus

Shuttle's Commercial Lure

Spave Agency's Close-To-Earth Thinking

It has been a quarter-century since America put its first satellite into space and a decade since the last lunar expedition closed the era of flag-bearing astronauts. These exploits captured the public's imagination and ensured financial support for the U.S. space program through the 1960s. During the following decade, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scored remarkable successes with its unmanned probes of other planets, and it mapped plans for space travel in the 1980s as difficult and perhaps as exciting as the Man-on-the-Moon program that President Kennedy set in motion in 1961.

Motivated by the high cost of space travel, NASA searched for more efficient ways to exploit space and its resources. This fostered the idea of a Space Transportation System, or STS, for carrying cargoes (“payloads”) into orbit and returning to Earth aboard a fleet of reusable space shuttles. Now after five successful flights of the space shuttle Columbia, the first flight of the new shuttle Challenger from the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida is scheduled for sometime in middle or late March — barring further delay that postponed the original launch date from Jan. 27 because of a fuel tank flaw. Though a setback, which is likely to postpone the launching of other flights this year, it does not dampen optimism in the space agency that the United States is on the verge of a commercial, scientific and military renaissance in space.

However, this view is not universally shared. The science community is complaining that space sciences are taking a back seat to the military applications of space. And as for America's attempt to push ahead with the commercialization of space, it is encountering competition from Russia, Europe and Japan. In recent years, all three have been developing inexpensive means of launching satellites, and at least Europe and Japan are trying to attract some of the international business — including American business — that NASA was counting on to support the commercial aspect of the Space Transportation System.

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