A lot of good science was done aboard the Space Shuttle's Astro 1 flight last week despite technical problems with the mission's sophisticated telescopes. The real problem isn't so much that glitches developed as that Astro was a one-shot deal. This probably was the last flight of the $150 million orbiting observatory.
That wasn't the way things were supposed to work. When the shuttle was approved in 1972, NASA promised to fly up to 60 shuttle missions a year, which would have enabled scientists to launch Astro several times over the program's lifetime. The 1986 Challenger disaster --ed those hopes, cutting the number of shuttle flights to 10 a year. As a result, big ticket items like the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope and $37 billion Space Station have taken priority over relatively low budget items like the Astro observatory, despite the undeniably important scientific benefits to be derived from such missions.
The lesson of Astro's mixed performance should be that a national space policy that mandates penny-wise, pound-foolish missions needs urgent reexamination. That appears to be the thrust of a new report to the National Space Council this week. A panel of experts convened to review NASA operations and the future of the nation's space program recommended sweeping changes that include ceasing reliance on the shuttle by building a new fleet of unmanned rockets and redesigning the proposed space station.
The criticism was tough, but that may be what NASA needs to force it to face up to the inefficiency and lack of direction that have dogged the agency in recent years. Only if the challenge can be met now will the country be poised to enter a new golden age of space exploration in the 21st century.