Monday, September 01, 2003

In Space, No One Can Hear Your Ideology

I had a short deadline on this week's column due to the Labor Day holiday; had to get my opinions in early so the staff could get out of town for the holiday weekend. I was running behind and couldn't figure out what to write about when in Thursday morning's Tribune, the editorial page opined in favor of a renewed space shuttle program. Inspiration!

Here's an interesting note for grammarians: The editorial originally ran in the paper with the headline, "To boldly return." I made the "boldly split infinitives" crack in my column, and now the archived version on the Tribune website has a different headline, "Reviving NASA." Proofreaders rule!

Did you hear that Clint Eastwood decided to take a theology course on the New Testament, because a man's gotta understand his Lamentations?

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 31, 2003

Consider a government program which, despite important successes, has suffered even-more-dramatic failures. Worse, the failures weren’t random, but rather grew from fundamental organizational flaws. Despite a through investigation after one such failure and promises to reform, the agency backslid and another huge tragedy resulted.

Two separate investigations, several years apart, found ineffective leadership and flawed communication -- institutional failings that not only cost money, but lives. Many thoughtful people find these costs unacceptable, because despite the claims of the program’s supporters about the needs involved and supposed future benefits, the program hasn’t provided practical, measurable payback to taxpayers.

When the federal budget deficit is the largest (in nominal terms, which used to be the only way people discussed it) in history, and when The Tribune repeatedly has said that the problem is simply too much spending , you’d guess that I’d be arguing to spend more money on the program and The Tribune would be demanding immediate cuts.

But we’re talking NASA (and not CPS), so the usual roles get reversed.

What is it about space that makes libertarians and conservatives go all weak-kneed about aging, 30-year-old technology and big government? I understand the romance of space; I race through dinner to watch "Enterprise" with my youngest kid, own "Next Generation" toys, DVDs, and books, and took my first date to see "2001: A Space Odyssey" (for which I’m still apologizing.) But just as Tom Clancy novels don’t justify building new submarines, why do dreams of space travel exempt a program of limited utility from the usual scrutiny of those who decry government spending?

The shuttle program and space station aren’t much good for scientific knowledge, except for experiments directly related, and only relevant, to the shuttle and space station themselves. Other experiments could be performed by machines or remote control -- and often are, with the astronauts simply babysitters. The civilian technology spin-offs have been limited, and the current shuttle fleet uses technology less sophisticated and current than many readily-available consumer items.

Rather than reexamining the program, too many Republicans who can’t abide by money being spent on earth have absolutely no problem spending tax dollars in space -- and want to spend more. Such romantics!

These folks usually demand that every government program justify its worth, and always do more with less. Unfortunately, the Columbia investigation found that NASA, in response to White House and congressional pressure, tried to do more with less and to meet unrealistic deadlines and goal -- with tragic results. The “do more with less” exhortation was a recipe for disaster. So will these people stop demanding it from other programs? Of course not.

Apparently because everything turns upside-down in space, the Republican/conservative/libertarian response is an expanded commitment -- more money for NASA, a new shuttle fleet, and the same commitment that put men on the moon by 1969 (and that hasn’t had them back there since 1972).

Usually it’s liberals demanding more money for failed government programs on the grounds that inadequate funding meant that we really hadn’t tried them yet. Aren’t conservatives supposed to abhor that kind of dreamy-eyed wishful thinking? But lately it’s conservatives who let dreams blind them to reality.

Whether it’s Iraqis greeting American troops with rose petals, or Middle Eastern democracy spontaneously sprouting, or the budget deficit miraculously turning around, or that Bush’s tax cuts will create 5.5 million new jobs this year, conservatives now let their dreams decouple them from reality.

The space program may let editorialists boldly split infinitives, but it’s a government program -- and should be judged by the same standards as every other government program. By that standard, the shuttle flunks.

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