Retreating From the Final Frontier
Why does Congress want to slash NASA's budget when the agency is already doing more with so mcuh less?
WE are on the verge of enormous ''frontiers of knowledge and opportunity.'' Discoveries from unexplored worlds - in space and on Earth - will enrich our lives and ''dazzle our imagination with hope and optimism.'' These statements are not the view through the rose-colored lenses of a special interest advocate, but the writings of House Speaker Newt Gingrich about the space program.
Why then has his House of Representatives slashed NASA? Because he believes that space exploration and development will really advance only if the government gets out of the way.
Nonsense. We have seen this thinking before, when the government tried to leave the communication-satellite business. Private industries begged government to come back or the US would lose its competitiveness.
We are still waiting for private investments for materials processing in space. If the government doesn't fund it, nothing will happen. We are still waiting for a privately financed launch vehicle. Instead, private industry begs for the government to be an ''anchor tenant'' - another form of government subsidy. And a recent article in an aerospace trade journal pointed out the state of private investment for lunar exploitation - none.
Americans want a government that works well in partnership with industry and academia, and NASA is a federal agency that works:
* Norman Thagard just broke a 20-year old American space-endurance record aboard Mir, the Russian space station.
* The Hubble Space Telescope makes regular discoveries of importance to our understanding of Earth and the universe.
* Mars Pathfinder and the Mars Global Surveyor, two low-cost spacecraft, are scheduled to be launched to Mars in 1996 to explore for evidence of water.
* A Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous will be launched next year as the first of the small Discovery missions.
* Four hundred million miles from Earth, the Galileo spacecraft - bound for Jupiter - successfully dispatched a probe that will penetrate the atmosphere of that huge, gaseous planet for the first time ever.
* Americans and Russians are combining resources to build the international space station - a unique orbiting laboratory that will open doors to future exploration, while advancing technology for benefits on Earth. The project is on time and on budget. Even the stars in space seem to have conspired with those in Hollywood to produce ''Apollo 13,'' the summer movie that has captured the nation's imagination. The ''can-do'' agency is back.
Considering this record, why should the space agency be fighting for its life? Congress wants to slash NASA's budget, even though NASA already has reduced spending dramatically.
NASA is doing more with less. Each of the last four years its budget has declined. It used to take NASA eight years and $590 million, on average, to build a spacecraft. Soon it will take only three years. By the turn of the century, costs will be driven down to $85 million. Instead of launching a few spacecraft every decade, NASA plans to send several probes into deep space each year, initiating a new golden age in exploration. Its New Millennium program is fueling a revolution in spacecraft design.
For reinventing itself - and concurrently reducing costs by operating faster, better and cheaper - NASA has received high praise from Vice President Al Gore and Speaker Gingrich. But despite all NASA has done, in February the Clinton administration proposed chopping its budget by a further 20 percent over the next five years.
TO meet the goal set by the administration, NASA plans to eliminate an additional 26,000 civil service and contractor jobs, and to consolidate programs. Each of NASA's 10 research facilities will be trimmed back and reorganized.
Some in Congress believe NASA has bitten off more than it can chew and, inevitably, it will be forced to close centers and relinquish some primary enterprise.
This may come to pass, but not because of the Clinton budget. If it happens, it will be because Congress is poised to slash NASA's budget even further - reducing spending from $14 billion in 1995 (less than 1 percent of the federal budget) to just $10.6 billion (1995 dollars) in the year 2000. Gingrich's House colleagues have begun to trim the foot to fit the shoe. If they succeed, we will limp into the future, deprived of a major asset.
If Congress prevails, NASA's five-year plan will be thrown into turmoil. Instead of a controlled, deliberate restructuring, the space agency will tumble into chaos. The can-do agency - and America - will suffer a tremendous loss.
The question becomes: What part of NASA is expendable? Private industry will not step in to research global climate as part of Mission to Planet Earth. It will not conduct hypersonic research for airplanes of the future or send spacecraft to explore Mars and beyond. It will not pay for the space station or the operation of the Hubble Telescope.
Americans take pride in their space program. When spacecraft send back images from other worlds, we are awe-struck and rejoice in the knowledge and discovery. When the shuttle reaches for the sky, our hearts go with the gallant men and women aboard. And as segments of the international space station come together, we will experience another giant leap in exploration.
Mr. Gingrich is right to cite these accomplishments as signs of optimism for America's future - but he is wrong to let the real government program die while pursuing the hypothetical private one.
Space uniquely challenges our abilities and inspires children and adults alike. At the very moment NASA is returning to the glory days of the past, members of Congress want to snuff out its vitality - erasing our dreams and hopes for the future.