Shuttle Diplomacy

Ever since the space shuttle was designed in the 1970s, scientists and other experts have warned of impending catastrophe. Yet even after the Challenger blew up on launching in 1986, official Washington paid little heed. Instead, lawmakers continued to reward NASA not on the basis of merit but on its ability to mount entertaining, PR-producing gimmicks, such as sending the aging John Glenn back into the cosmos. Humans in space get good press, and good press gets big funding. NASA is currently working on a budget of $14.6 billion, including $3.2 billion for the shuttle program.

This latest tragedy, the loss of the Columbia as it prepared to land Saturday, will lead Congress to pony up more money for President George W. Bush's agenda. His new federal budget proposal calls for $2.3 trillion—more than $300 billion of it in the red. In his Monday budget message, Bush said he would increase spending on the shuttle by almost 24 percent, to $3.97 billion, next year. This fits in nicely with his pseudo-Keynesian approach of boosting military outlays while cutting social programs. Along with energy, space exploration now will be cast as a security priority, especially where it can be tied to Bush's pet Star Wars missile scheme.

Critics say we're continuing to dump billions into a program that never amounted to much to begin with. “It's unfortunate that lives were lost in a mission that did not advance science in a meaningful way, and that is exactly what we have to avoid in the future,” said Francis Slakey, a Georgetown University physics professor who writes on space issues.

There have been many warnings about the orbiters. As far back as the late 1970s, experts worried that cuts in NASA's budget would endanger shuttle astronauts. And just a couple of weeks ago, a government audit unveiled a litany of safety problems.

In April 2002, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel spoke of its “strongest safety concerns” in 15 years. Richard D. Blomberg, the panel's former chairman, told the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, “In all of the years of my involvement, I have never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as I am right now. That concern is not for the present flight or the next or perhaps the one after that. In fact, one of the roots of my concern is that nobody will know for sure when the safety margin has been eroded too far. All of my instincts, however, suggest that the current approach is planting the seeds for future danger.”

Despite what seemed to some an excess of funding, in 2000, the General Accounting Office reported that cuts in the workforce were “jeopardizing NASA's ability to safely support the shuttle's planned flight rate.”

Done right, manned space travel may simply cost more than it's worth. Over and over, critics have argued that unmanned flights are the safest and most efficient way to probe space. But as NASA poured money into its publicity-generating junkets, financing for unmanned missions suffered. The grand idea was to build a space platform that could serve as the starting point for sending people to Mars. In the meantime, shuttle crews occupied themselves with more workaday tasks, like conducting experiments into the effects of weightlessness on kidney stones.

“There's nothing of scientific value being done on the space station,” said Slakey. “And that goes for the space shuttles as well.”

The U.S. now accounts for more than 50 percent of all the armaments sold on the planet. In 2001, we exported $12.2 billion in arms and signed up $13.1 billion in new business through the Foreign Military Sales program. What's more, our subsidies to the weapons industry are second only to those we give agribusiness.

“U.S.-origin weapons find their way into conflicts the world over,” says a recent report from the Federation of American Scientists. “Of the active conflicts in 1999, the United States supplied arms or military technology to parties in more than 92 percent of them—39 out of 42.” American troops have had to face armies we trained in Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti and Afghanistan. Because we trained and armed them with modern weaponry, we have had to spend yet more money to develop high-tech arms to, in effect, defeat ourselves. In addition, we soon will subsidize the sale of additional weapons to former Soviet republics and East Bloc nations, which are modernizing to meet NATO standards.

With war on the horizon, the arms-export business looks bright. But on the home front, the gun dealers are in consternation over various state efforts to hold them responsible for crimes committed with guns from their stores. This seems terribly unfair to them, especially at a time when we are all getting ready to repel the enemy as best we can. Led by its elderly mouthpiece Charlton Heston, the National Rifle Association is joining Bush's push for broad tort reform, an effort to limit damages in suits that accuse doctors and industry of wrongdoing. As one lobbyist told The Hill, a Capitol Hill publication, last week, the gun tort legislation can be a “catalyst” in other areas. “Even though the NRA bill doesn't directly have impact on medical doctors or asbestos,” the lobbyist said, “they build on each other.”

Addressing a recent convention of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, Jerry Lyons, a special agent of the FBI assigned to the weapons of mass destruction countermeasures unit, warned farmers to look out for food saboteurs or “agro-terrorists.” They're hard to profile, said Lyons, but keep an eye out for guys who adamantly oppose the drinking of milk or object to genetically modified food.

Lyons advised farmers to take any steps necessary to protect themselves and their crops—such things as limiting access to the farm to one entry point and installing motion detectors, cameras and alarms linked to an off-site security system.

“The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein and his willingness to terrorize himself.” —President George W. Bush,The Boston Globe, Jan. 30

“You almost never have perfect knowledge. It's not the way the world works. . . . The only way you get knowledge is to wait until Japan attacks Pearl Harbor.”

—Donald Rumsfeld,The Washington Post, Jan. 30

“History has called the United States into action, and we will not let history down.”

—President Bush,The Akron Beacon Journal, Jan. 30 Additional reporting by Phoebe St. John and Josh Saltzman.

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