Thursday, July 13, 2006

Don't forget about NASA

For the American public and NASA, it seems the honeymoon is over. We never pay attention to it anymore. We've stopped with the little gifts: the new rocket series, the renovations, the 5 percent of federal outlays. Even the Discovery’s raggedy appearance has mostly gone unnoticed. Those little mistakes and imperfections, endearing when things were getting underway, are now just irritating — we wonder why we put up with it anymore. And then there was that falling-out we had over the Challenger.

That last remark was not only distasteful, it was a mild example of the sick jokes that pervaded American culture for months after the disaster. For instance, that the crash was due to the astronauts freebasing Tang — or the one about the shuttlecock. This apparent schadenfreude, according to an article in the journal Western Folklore, betrays a frustration with NASA’s failure, which was also a failure for the country it symbolized. Maybe, maybe not. But since then, save for a brief interlude with the Red Planet, the public, and hence lawmakers, seem to have simply stopped caring.

This has, perhaps predictably, reflected itself in the steady declination of NASA’s budget, which has forced cuts to vital education and scientific research programs in order to satisfy an unchanging list of demands. The Discovery’s launch this week, already iffy because of insulation problems (pieces of filler fabric were found to be sticking out from the insulation), was approved anyway in order to stay on schedule with the 16 shuttle flights to be made to the international space station before the agency’s aging shuttles are finally retired in 2010. The number of pork-barrel programs attached to NASA’s budget has multiplied in recent decades, from six a decade ago to 198 separate “special interest items,” totaling more than half a billion dollars.

Budgetary stringency brought on by the war in Iraq have turned an additional appropriation of $60 million into a $190 million cut. Incremental cuts can end up costing far more than their explicit value — repairs put off today, say NASA officials, cost exponentially more to perform later, and forced cuts to research programs undermine the whole reason for being up there in the first place.

Although it may not always be immediately visible, the benefits of such research — necessarily public, because no private company could be remotely similar to NASA and stay afloat financially — are deeply felt and long lasting. From nonstick pans to the future of the human race, NASA is vital. A spacecraft was sent to Venus in April, for example, to gather information that may shed more light on global warming. Much of the technology for commercial air travel in use today was worked out by NASA some 15-20 years ago. The benefits to our economy, not to mention security in this area, have been huge — Boeing is widely known to be the largest U.S. exporter, and its 787 and other planes are directly tied to NASA developments. And, of course, there is the more distant possibility of settling other planets, should we end up destroying this one.

NASA has been good to us, and it deserves better than this. We need to recognize what we have in NASA is something very special and unique — and act accordingly.

Tyler Bleau
Editorial writer

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