President Bush, who (to say the least) does not enjoy a reputation as a wordsmith, has nevertheless had his moments of eloquence -- never more so than when it fell his duty last Saturday to announce to the nation the tragedy of the Columbia space mariners. In a widely noted portion of his remarks, Bush said, "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home." Whoever in the president's speechwriting stable helped the president craft those words did more than the usual day's work. Though some may be literal-minded enough to carp at the religious allusiveness of Bush's moving remarks, we are not among them.
But what was well said in the eulogy still left unsaid the question of what comes next, once we catch our breath as a nation and move on to redefine our mission in space. What is beginning to be heard from all sides is a lament that the space program has been starved for funding and that shortcuts on the safety front may have been resorted to. It is a fact that NASA has not seen its budget increased since 1992, which means that, taking inflation into consideration, the federal space agency has lost perhaps as much as a quarter of its funding base. The matter has surely not been helped by the Bush administration's pell-mell rush to cut taxes -- which has also imperiled the newly created Homeland Security Department's budget and operations.
And there is another issue to reckon with. As Time magazine's Greg Easterbrook argued in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, it is highly possible that we are misallocating the resources we have available for space exploration. Easterbrook complains that the space-shuttle concept itself is obsolete and that too much of NASA's budget has been swallowed up in large payouts to long-favored contractors such as the Boeing and Lockheed aeronautics monoliths. Today's shuttles are dinosaurs, says Easterbrook, with retrofitting costs amounting to far more than the expense of developing new, leaner, and more efficient spacecraft. And the mission of the shuttles, he argues, has come to be essentially the circular one of serving the orbiting space station, which itself exists mainly for the purpose of being a contact point for the shuttle fleet. Better scientific results and even more dramatic explorations could be achieved by creating new, relatively inexpensive space vehicles with more advanced technology.
Maybe. Maybe not. But there is undeniably a need to rethink the nation's future in space -- as well as its budget priorities and contracting procedures. During World War II, when cost efficiency became a necessary component of the nation's military effort, then-Senator Harry Truman became the chairman of a watchdog federal commission whose purpose was to oversee reforms on such matters. It was the committee's no-nonsense accomplishment of its work that first made its chairman a national figure. Perhaps there is a need for such a commission today to look into high-priority areas like the space program and national defense. We even have a recommendation for its chairman: Senator John McCain of Arizona, well versed in such affairs and known for uncompromising honesty and patriotism. Congress could create the framework for the committee on its own.
"Our journey into space will go on," President Bush promised on Saturday. But let us first decide which direction to go.