NASA's Budget Blunder

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If there's anything more powerful than one good idea it's two bad ones. In the long and often glittery history of American space exploration, far and away the two worst ideas have been the International Space Station (ISS) and the snakebit fleet of space shuttles. For more than a generation, these two ill-considered programs have been money pits for NASA, gobbling funds and returning nowhere near enough in return. Yesterday, they took another big bite out of the space agency, when officials announced $3 billion worth of NASA budget cuts over the next five years, all of them needed to help keep the manned programs going and all of them coming out of the hides of some of the scientists' best and most promising unmanned ones.

No one pretends manned space travel isn't frightfully expensive. But the ISS and shuttles have taken profligacy to places it never went before. When President Reagan first proposed the station 22 years ago, it was budgeted at just $8 billion and was supposed to have been up and running before the 1980s were out. Currently, the outpost is still incomplete, it has returned not a lick of real science and is projected to cost up to $100 billion. The shuttles, which were advertised as a cheap, fast, reliable way to get to and from near-Earth orbit, cost $400 million every time they fly, take months to prep for a mission and have a devastatingly poor safety record, as two lost ships and 14 lost lives attest.

For these reasons, even space enthusiasts were dubious in January 2004 when President Bush announced his surprisingly ambitious plan to send Americans back to the moon and onto Mars. Thrilling as it was to have astronauts back in the deep-space game, the money would have to come from somewhere, and pan drippings left over from the shuttle and ISS would not do it. But Bush at first seemed serious, promising to complete the station by 2010, mothball the shuttles after that and redirect the saved resources to the new manned initiatives, all without sacrificing such scientifically priceless—and fiscally prudent—programs as new space telescopes and the growing fleet of interplanetary probes flown mostly by the NASA-affiliated Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). When NASA's new, no-nonsense administrator, Michael Griffin, took over last April, he echoed that. Not “one thin dime” would be cannibalized from the hard-science missions to pay for the manned ones, he promised. Now, it appears, there will be a lot of lost dimes indeed.

Among the projects on the block to pay for the $3 billion cut is the NuSTAR satellite, which would have used x-ray detection to find black holes, galactic nuclei and supernovae; the Terrestrial Planet Finder, which, as its name suggests, would hunt for Earth-like planets around other stars; and a welter of small craft known as the Explorers—discount ships designed mostly by university groups and launched in cooperation with NASA. Narrowly focused and cheap to fly, they have in the past paid big scientific dividends on very little investment.

Worse still would be the potential loss of JPL's Mars Sample Return mission and a possible flight to Jupiter's icy moon Europa. The sample return project would be the capstone to a Mars exploration initiative that since 1996 has placed three rovers on the surface of the planet and two other ships in orbit around it, with a third orbiter set to arrive next week. Scrapping the Europa mission would be an even greater failure of imagination since the Jovian moon is widely considered the solar system's most tantalizing extraterrestrial place, with what may be a warm, salty, organic ocean churning beneath a relatively thin rind of water ice. Life not only could exist there but, to hear at least some exobiologists tell it, it should.

Defenders of the current fiscal policy point out that NASA's budget will still grow by 3.2% this year, at a time when plenty of other agencies are suffering deep cuts. True enough, but after the new belt-tightening, the projected annual growth through 2011 will be down to 1%, less than the rate of inflation. What's more, the agency's overall allotment this year is only $16.8 billion out of a total federal budget measured in the trillions. And though every federal agency faces hard choices to make ends meet, the missions NASA is scrapping make the least fiscal dent at the greatest scientific price. It can take two or even three interplanetary probes to pay for just one shuttle flight, which in turn is flying in the first place only to service the space station, which in turn does... nothing at all.

NASA was founded in 1958 with the expectation that smart scientists and gutsy lawmakers and bureaucrats could get together to explore the cosmos without breaking the bank in the process. For a while they did. Now it looks like most of the money will keep getting spent but the cosmic rewards will continue to dwindle. The scientists, by any measure, are still smart. The same, alas, cannot be said for everyone else.