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By Graham Earnshaw

WASHINGTON, Oct 4, Reuter – Space is back in fashion in the United States with the shuttle in business once more and both presidential candidates declaring their support for the next big project — a permanent space station.

President Reagan pleased space enthusiasts just before the shuttle flight, the first in nearly three years, when he declared the United States should lead the way in fulfilling mankind’s destiny to “colonise this galaxy.”

Just how fast the United States reaches for the stars will depend to some extent on who wins the presidential election next month, Republican George Bush or Democrat Michael Dukakis.

So far, space buffs are encouraged by what both have said on an issue they view as crucial to the future of the human race.

“Space exploration provides our children, the next generation of scientists and engineers, with a sense of vision to encourage their imaginations and energies,” said Bush.

Dukakis countered by declaring: “Sometime in the 21st century, humans will leave this planet to explore, and ultimately live and work on the Moon and Mars. We should begin now to take the early steps to achieve that goal.”

He added that as president, he would want America “not just to be part of international space effort, but to be the leader in space.”

But as astronaut David Walker who flew on a shuttle mission in 1984 told Reuters: “It’s kind of hard to tell what politicians are going to do from their campaign statements.”

The first major project on America’s space list is a permanent manned space station, scheduled to be put into orbit in the late-1990s, which will serve as a laboratory and perhaps a jumping-off point for more distant destinations.

“We’re pleased that both candidates have come out in favour of the space station,” said Glen Wilson, executive director emeritus of the privately-funded National Space Society.

“Also both of them have come out in favour of reviving the National Aeronautics and Space Council which (former President) Nixon abolished in 1973,” he added.

But the candidates disagree over a proposed spaceship/aircraft dubbed the Orient Express which could take off into orbit and land again without the aid of the expensive rocket boosters used to lift the present shuttle out of the Earth’s grip.

Bush is for it, Dukakis against.

The consensus among the experts seems to be that since the 1986 Challenger disaster, the United States has fallen behind the Soviet Union in many important areas of space research.

“We have lost some ground,” said astronaut Walker. “(The Russians) have gained a lot of experience in near-Earth orbit particularly. They haven’t been able to do a lot outside Earth’s immediate vicinity, but they’re getting there.”

But the experts cannot agree on what the United States should aim for once the space station is aloft.

The two most common suggestions are a mission to Mars and a settlement on the Moon, but the unity of purpose which took the United States to the Moon in 1969, only eight years after President Kennedy set the goal, is conspicuously lacking.

“The shuttle and the space station are infrastructure in search of a mission,” the New York Times said in an editorial.

What is clear is that while the United States made it to the moon alone, future exploration is almost certain to be a joint effort.

A combined Soviet-American mission to Mars is under discussion, and 11 countries signed an agreement last week on cooperating with the United States on the development of the space station.

Space enthusiasts say that even if agreement cannot be reached now on what the United States should aim for next, a start must be made to lift mankind out of the cradle of Earth.

“I believe it is absolutely essential (that we move beyond the Earth) because of the limits on resources,” said Dr Peter Graser, who pioneered the idea of solar power satellites which could collect and transfer energy from space to the Earth.

Astronaut David Walker agreed. “Man is the dominant species on this small planet and is rapidly using and polluting its resources,” he said. “If we persist … we’ll use it up and we’ll need some place else to go.” REUTER GE EM NNNN

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