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CAN A NEW BOSS AT NASA SAVE THE SPACE PROGRAM?

If confirmed, California aerospace executive Daniel S. Goldin, nominated this week to become the ninth NASA administrator in the agency's 34-year history, will come to the job at a difficult time and under difficult circumstances.

Despite his track record of producing tough, dependable space hardware, Goldin is not well-known in some circles that participate in space policy and politics.Because the opening at NASA was created by the forced resignation of his predecessor over disagreements about the future of the space program, there's room for wondering if Goldin will be independent enough or will be a rubber stamp for the National Space Council.

The council, which advises the White House on space policy, has opted for a scaled-down version of the proposed manned space station. In the estimation of the prestigious National Research Council, the space station would be too small to do either the quality or the quantity of the research for which it is being designed.

Even the smaller space station is under attack in Congress by those who think the money involved should be spent on more down-to-earth undertakings.

Since the price tag on the space station has escalated from $8 billion in 1984 to more than $30 billion today, such attacks are to be expected. Even so, the criticism is misplaced.

Yes, there are plenty of other worthwhile programs that could use the money. But the poor, or some equivalent pressing social problem, will always be with us. New technology spun off by the space program can help the economy grow. Despite the higher costs involved, some space research is performed more effectively by people than by machines. It would be penny-wise but pound-foolish to orbit a space station that saves money but is unable to do the job. Besides, consider the potential contribution of an adequate space station to national security. A well-known military principle is that whoever controls the high ground has the better chance of prevailing in a conflict - or preventing a conflict from starting. Since space constitutes the "high ground" in modern times, manned space stations can contribute to peace as well as to science.

Goldin is being brought to NASA at a time when there's reason for worrying about the agency's future. If confirmed, he will owe his job to those who have helped transform the policy of the space program from a bold and ambitious undertaking to one that is decidedly timid. Consequently, there's room for wondering if Goldin has the vision and vigor needed to correct the current, misguided course.