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NASA in Wonderland

December 15, 2004

Ideally, Sean O'Keefe's resignation as NASA administrator this week would give the space agency the chance to alter the oddly retro trajectory that Congress set for the supposedly future-oriented agency in its 2005 budget. Lavishing billions on nostalgically rich but scientifically poor missions like returning astronauts to the moon, the budget starves NASA of funding for projects with abundant scientific worth.

Among the challenges facing O'Keefe's successor, two are particularly urgent:

* Finding students with the right stuff to replace the engineers, mathematicians and other U.S. scientists who got their degrees soon after the 1961 launch of the Soviet's first manned spacecraft, Vostok 1. This big wave of scientists is now retiring. In 2000, 24 nations awarded a higher percentage of science and engineering degrees to students than the United States. Soaring tuition and declining scholarship funding are among the reasons the United States is lagging. Oblivious to the need for new blood, Congress sliced 10% from the National Science Foundation's education funding for next year.

* Setting priorities. Whoever succeeds O'Keefe needs the will to make politically difficult decisions. These should include mothballing the flawed space shuttles and retiring the scientifically useless International Space Station. With one exception. Last week, a panel of experts concluded that a final space shuttle flight to repair the Hubble Space Telescope could yield tremendous scientific benefits well worth the risks.

O'Keefe avoided making such hard calls. It was folly to pit one NASA objective against another, he argued, when all aspire toward discovering "the broader solar system and universe." Does that mean that if a goal lies in outer space, it must be worth achieving?

This logic is reminiscent of the Mad Hatter's advice to Alice, lost in Wonderland. "I'm not sure where I'm going," Alice laments. Oh, but "any direction will do," the Hatter assures her.

In Wonderland, maybe.

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