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PRESIDENT Richard Nixon, says his friend, Astronaut Frank Borman, likes to describe himself as a space “activist.” Nixon’s activism will soon be tested. Eagle had hardly lifted off the Sea of Tranquillity when the very success of Apollo 11 heightened the controversy over what role the space program should take in the future. Vice President Spiro Agnew wants the U.S. to aim at putting a man on Mars by the year 2000, and NASA already has on hand a plethora of ambitious projects that should keep it busy through 1985. Critics like Housing and Urban Development Secretary George Romney insist that it is time to slow down in space and “deal with problems on earth.”

The President has appointed a four-man task force, headed by Agnew,* and charged it with recommending further space goals by Sept. 1. In a nation that is ever more conscious of its finite resources, the issue could well be as politically touchy as the ABM.

The price tags under consideration are no more precise than early estimates of the cost of putting man on the moon. NASA officials, who have always worried about being accused of underestimating costs, used to quote figures as high as $40 billion, but the actual cost of Apollo to date has been $24 billion. As for Mars, New Mexico Democrat Clinton Anderson, head of the Senate Space Committee, guesses that the bill for a manned mission would run from $25 billion to $40 billion.

Difficult to Rebuild

NASA’s own package of post-Apollo programs, which includes additional lunar flights, orbital space stations and a series of unmanned planetary probes, would, by the agency’s estimate, absorb between one-half of 1% and 1% of the gross national product every year for ten years. In the present $900 billion U.S. economy, the price would range from $4.5 billion to $9 billion a year. Though the total would be considerably smaller than the budget for defense (now $79 billion) or the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now $58 billion), it would run considerably higher than NASA’s current $3.8 billion costs.

Less easily measured are the social and technological costs of allowing the space effort to wither away. The U.S. has invested $36 billion in space since

Sputnik, but spending has already declined from its 1966 peak of $5.9 billion. Wernher Von Braun, whose team was responsible for the Saturn boosters, argues that unless the nation embarks on another Apollo-size program, the U.S. stands to suffer a “tragic loss of a national asset.” He fears that NASA’s skilled engineers and scientists may be dispersed after the last of the nine remaining Apollo missions is flown in 1972. The space team has already shrunk from 400,000 in 1966 to 140,000 today, and the group might be difficult to rebuild. “To continue to attract the kinds of people that made this program possible,” says George Mueller, NASA’s manned-spaceflight chief, “we must have challenging and interesting and rewarding things to accomplish.”

With space contracts dwindling, the aerospace industry is beginning to show signs of atrophy. Although few of the major companies involved are overwhelmingly dependent on the space program, most of them are experiencing a slump. At North American Rockwell, principal contractor for the Apollo capsule, 5,200 research and development staffers have been laid off or shifted to other projects. The Boeing Co., builder of the first-stage Saturn boosters, must soon let go part of its 10,000-man Apollo team. The impact would be most severe in towns like Huntsville, Ala., where Saturn rockets are assembled. Space has changed the onetime “Watercress Capital of the World” from a town of 16,000 to a lively city of 160,000, but now Huntsville grimly awaits layoffs at NASA’s Marshall Space Center.

Concern about the future of the space program could well provoke a useful debate over the nation’s priorities. The severest critics of space tend to cast the issue in terms of a hard choice between space and social tasks. Jerome Wiesner, John Kennedy’s scientific adviser, says typically that “it would be a mistake to commit $100 billion to a manned Mars landing when we have problems getting from Boston to New York City.”

Revise and Reverse

It is probably unfair to lay the issue out along such sharp either/or lines. All that most Americans contributed to Apollo was enthusiasm and taxes. Rebuilding the cities, attacking poverty and scrubbing the air and water, demand unflagging personal commitment by almost everyone. Such efforts call for an unprecedented exercise in social engineering. They would require the development of new and ingenious management techniques; their expenditure of money and manpower would dwarf the cost of the technical teamwork that put men on the moon.

Romney, who has seen his ten-year program to build 26 million houses mired in budget shortages, argues that “we should revise and reverse our priorities.” But he does not deny Agnew’s man-on-Mars proposal a place among them. To do so would be to subscribe to the notion that “if you’ve seen one celestial body, you’ve seen them all.”

* Other members: White House Science Adviser Lee DuBridge, NASA Administrator Thomas Paine and Air Force Secretary Robert Seamans.

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