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NASA's High Horse

July 01, 2001

At a congressional hearing Tuesday, members of the House Science Committee suggested subsidizing the astronomically expensive International Space Station by giving space shuttle seats to the lucky and the rich. They would consider selling lottery tickets for space rides to the masses and perhaps let others, like Soyuz passenger Dennis Tito, pay millions outright.

NASA's space station administrator, Michael Hawes, huffed that the U.S. space program is all "about science." And only about science, he implied, arguing that "adding people" on the shuttle would force NASA to "throw off" important science.

Oh, please.

As Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, told the committee, this nation's manned space program has always been as much about symbolism as science. If science were truly the program's sole aim, NASA would have chucked the whole Apollo mission, which spent more than 115 billion taxpayer dollars to bring back rocks that helped geologists discover the moon's age, 4.5 billion years. A robot rocket could have done the same for mere tens of millions of dollars.

NASA itself opened the door for exemptions like Tito's when it let former Sen. John Glenn ride off into his sunset on the shuttle in 1998. Nevertheless, NASA, which fought the California investment banker's visit to the space station under Russian auspices, will have to be nudged into accepting the inevitable growth of space tourism.

Congress should reject the dangerously hasty timetable proposed by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), who says NASA could pay 35% of its $4-billion space station cost overrun by selling 14 space shuttle tickets each year. (Weldon just happens to represent Florida's "Space Coast.")

As Tito, a former NASA aerospace engineer, was careful to explain at the hearing, any civilian candidate for space travel should have rigorous training and be made fully aware that the dangers remain just as high as when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who was aboard as the first of many proposed layperson space guests.

That will not be enough to make many enthusiasts immune to the lure of space. NASA has everything to gain and nothing to lose from letting a few of them, as World War II poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. once said, "slip the surly bonds of Earth."

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