Thursday, September 30, 2010

Passage of NASA funding bill highlights doubts about space program

Congressional approval of a $19 billion reauthorization bill for NASA on Wednesday would be a lot better news if the space agency were not proceeding with planned layoffs on Friday nor with President Barack Obama's plans to focus future efforts on commercial endeavors. Much of the $19 billion will be used for a last shuttle mission in June, to extend the life of the space station five more years and to build a new launch vehicle, according to Cable News Network (CNN)on. That's okay on the surface, but not beyond that. Overtly focusing the program toward commercial development is troubling, because that is a corruption of the space agency's purpose and what has repeatedly gotten NASA into trouble before. "We want to thank Congress for NASA's future," Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator, said on Thursday. "It puts NASA programs on a more sustainable future." That is disingenuous at best, because it is classic bureaucrat-speak. NASA gets into trouble, and astronauts die, when it thinks of itself as a business geared toward profit and not as an agency using public resources to advance scientific exploration. In the past, NASA generated huge public support because people were willing to use the nation's financial resources in quest of cosmic understanding. The first person on the moon, the first teacher in space -- these developments were embraced by the public in the interest of knowledge, not profits. And when things occasionally went tragically wrong, like when Apollo 13 burned on the launchpad in 1967 or the shuttles Challenger and Colombia were destroyed in 1986 and 2008, the entire nation mourned the loss. But the new NASA, trying to generate income by hiring itself out to major companies instead of advancing science, has managed to generate primarily indifference from the public. The shuttles blew up in flight because inspectors missed things or made bad decisions -- were these errors mere bad luck or at least partially the result of time pressure felt by NASA managers trying to complete no-gravity experiments being funded by U.S. or overseas corporations? We'll never know, because we allow federal bureaucrats nearly total immunity for bad decisions and their agencies try harder to protect their annual budget allocations than serve the public that pays for them. What is needed is a reordering of priorities that puts commercial applications at the bottom, not the top of the list. Commercial applications are fine, but they must be studiously kept behind safety and science -- and anyone, even senior government officials -- should be fired if they ever forget that again.

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