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Down-to-Earth choices

January 22, 2006

HUMAN EXPLORATION OF SPACE is such an epic notion, conjuring images of both a science-fiction future and a real-life history of giant steps for mankind, that it's hard not to be swept up in the romance. President Bush certainly seemed to have been having "Star Trek" fantasies when he delivered his vision for returning astronauts to the moon, and eventually sending them to Mars, during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election.

Afterward, Bush dropped his proposal like a sizzling meteorite, having scarcely mentioned it since. Unfortunately, though, it still seems to be guiding the thinking of NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin. About two-thirds of NASA's 2006 budget will be spent on manned spaceflight programs. That money will come at the expense of more scientifically worthy (not to mention cheaper and safer) unmanned space exploration and astronomy, and the under-funding of these programs promises to get worse.

The president's 2007 budget, slated to reach Congress on Feb. 6, is expected to reduce funding for several government programs -- NASA included. It's almost certain NASA will get less than the $17.9 billion that Congress said last month it should get in the space agency's reauthorization bill. That will leave Griffin with tough choices over whether NASA should pursue more worthy projects -- science-rich unmanned exploration -- or keep its focus on returning the aging space shuttle to flight to finish building the International Space Station. Given his previous comments that the agency's long-term focus will be on manned spaceflight, the outlook isn't good.

Griffin should remember that NASA's greatest moments in recent years have all involved robotic, unmanned missions and space telescopes. The space probe Stardust, which parachuted back to Earth on Sunday, completed a 2.88-billion-mile journey during which it flew by a comet, capturing particles that scientists hope will shed light on the origins of the solar system. On Thursday, NASA launched New Horizons, another unmanned space probe that will embark on a nine-year, 3-billion-mile mission to rendezvous with Pluto, the solar system's lone unvisited planet. Those missions cost roughly $200 million and $700 million, respectively.

By contrast, NASA spends about $450 million each time it launches a space shuttle into low-Earth orbit for a few weeks. The International Space Station, once billed as a space platform for lunar and planetary exploration, has turned into a $100-billion floating laboratory for zero-gravity experiments of questionable scientific value. With sobering budget decisions ahead, Griffin should abandon the space station, which would in turn significantly reduce the number of missions the shuttle would have to fly before it is retired.

None of this is to say manned spaceflight doesn't have a place at NASA. But when probes can do more for less, it is clear the agency's priorities are badly skewed.

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