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U.S. Space Goal: Double NASA Budget Over Next Decade

One of the most inspirational moments in my life came two years ago at Cape Canaveral. I traveled there with Dan Goldin, the scientific and managerial whiz who served as head of NASA under three presidents to witness a shuttle launch.

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Seeing the huge launch vehicle at close range, with its solid fuel rocket boosters, hearing what it took simply to transport the massive and explosive entity to the launch pad, examining the other shuttles in their bay up close, seeing the insulating tiles, and then witnessing the majesty of the launch, were all transcendental experiences, showing what heights of ingenuity and brilliance man can achieve.

But I also saw fragility and danger. Every element of the process was complex and literally explosive. NASA’s superb scientists could provide redundant systems and reduce the risk at every turn, but risk was always there. Dozens upon dozens of successful launches, successful missions and successful returns lulled us all into a false sense of routinization — that the space shuttles were like the airline shuttles between Washington and New York, a fancier form of commuter transportation.

No matter how successful our scientists are at minimizing risks, the laws of probability meant that sooner or later, we would have another tragic accident. We won’t know for weeks or months what specifically caused the Columbia disaster. But whatever we learn, we cannot let it serve as a reason to cut a program that is a monument to multinational cooperation and the epitome of scientific achievement. Quite the opposite.

Naysayers have always questioned the worth of the space program, liberals crying that we have huge unmet needs at home, conservatives bleating that it is an obvious target to pare back the size of government. Now many will take this tragedy as evidence for their opposition and as an excuse to pull back. But the space program, besides being a symbol of our nation’s greatness and an expression of the human yearning to expand the frontier, is also a major investment in the future.

No other government in the world has the resources or the foresight to make the necessary investment. So if anybody is going to lead the way, it is us. And as we have seen with the space program, when we lead, others will respond, from Russia to Italy to Israel. Just as important, this is not an area that can be privatized. The private sector would never invest money for a return that may be decades off, any more than it would invest heavily in basic research without an immediate applied payoff. These are areas that are the unique responsibility of government.

Despite its payoffs in scientific research and international relations, NASA’s budget has been under siege for years. That is before this year’s looming budget crunch. With NASA budgets essentially flat for the past dozen years, the agency was unable to fund the program for the next generation of space flight beyond the shuttles. Now, with just three shuttles left and their safety in question, we need to step back and reassess where we go with space exploration.

Some critics, like writer Gregg Easterbrook, believe we should shelve manned space flight, abandon the space station concept and use disposable rockets and unmanned experiments. He has a point in terms of cost effectiveness. No doubt, many of the experiments conducted on the space station do not require expensive direct human intervention. But there are other, compelling reasons to continue to pursue manned flight with a space station platform, if we approach it appropriately and with the appropriate long-term goals.

Manned flights to a space station provide a springboard to future manned trips to the moon and, eventually, to Mars — the kind of big goal that we should have on the horizon. They allow for important experiments on human physiology that can have big payoffs in terms of human health and disease prevention and eradication. And they provide huge benefits in international cooperation and coordination at a time when our role as an arrogant, go-it-alone superpower is criticized everywhere.

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The answer is not to prune back on space flights and research. We need a bold new plan for NASA, one that expands funding and moves aggressively toward an orbital space plan and the next generation of shuttle vehicles as part of a long-term plan for space exploration. Doubling the budget over a decade, as we have done for the National Institutes of Health, should be the goal. The president’s budget does many things, but among them is to force a serious confrontation over our national priorities.

For the first time since the Reagan era, we are considering the appropriate role of government. For the most part, I fear we will conduct the debate badly, not really confronting the ballooning costs of entitlements as they crowd out the rest of government, not considering the entrenched and growing costs of defense and entitlements — the so-called uncontrollables — and the tax base needed just to accommodate them, not acknowledging the needed government role as a safety net, pushing more unfunded mandates onto states that are ill-equipped to handle them. We will get off onto sideshows about largely symbolic elements of government spending that bypass the larger issues. We will get into a tough, zero-sum game over discretionary domestic spending, pitting one program against another over relative scraps in the budget.

We need instead to acknowledge that there are many programs that are important and worthy of serious money in a still-rich society, and then to pony up what is needed to fund them adequately — and to make sure we have the revenues to pay for them. NASA is one of those programs. Of course, we should not just throw money at it. We need a serious and searching review of the entire agency, including its privatized components, and a clearly articulated strategy for it. But this tragedy should serve as a wake-up call to a great nation to take another giant step for mankind, not to step back and shrink from a role only we can play.

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