- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2000

With the U.S.-Russian crew aboard the International Space Station just in time for the presidential election, it's time to consider the space policies of the Clinton-Gore administration. Where the White House has led, obedient federal bureaucracies such as NASA have followed. It has left an agency in disastrous disarray.
Opportunistic "space spectaculars" such as the John Glenn shuttle mission to cure old age during the 1998 election, or the recent NASA announcement of plans to launch an Israeli astronaut into space next year, seem designed to appeal to core Democratic constituencies.
For instance, in 1998, when NASA astronaut Eileen Collins was assigned by NASA to command a shuttle mission slated for July 1999, she was presented to the country at a special White House ceremony presided over by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Ms. Collins had earned her command through her own competence, but the White House made it look like the Clinton team deserved the credit. But when Ms. Collins' shuttle blasted off (with Hillary Clinton in attendance), a short circuit nearly forced a hazardous emergency landing in Africa. Investigators traced the near-catastrophe to wiring bundles mishandled by overworked, understaffed teams at Cape Canaveral.
Behind the layoffs was Al Gore and his reinventing government campaign, and the Clinton-Gore team which has cut NASA's budget seven out of the past eight years. When the public started to worry that the cuts had gone to far, Mr. Gore recently tried to shift blame. "When the Republican leadership sought to slash NASA funding by more than $1 billion, I fought to restore [it]," a Gore campaign letter recently stated. That's untrue, since House Republican leaders have consistently recommended more money for NASA than the White House has budgeted. Yet despite the record of cuts year after year, Mr. Gore still claimed that "I have played a key role keeping NASA's budget stable."
The X-33 project is another overly politicized NASA disaster. An unmanned hypersonic rocket plane supposed to prove out new technology for a replacement "Space Shuttle" design, the billion-dollar program was assigned to a California aerospace contractor in a high-profile ceremony shortly before the 1996 elections. Mr. Gore officiated and proclaimed, "This is the craft that can carry America's dreams aloft and launch our nation into a sparkling new century."
When inaugurated, the program was supposed to be three years from first flight. Today, after repeated setbacks and redesigns, it is still estimated to be about three years from first flight, at best. Some experts now doubt the vehicle will ever even get off the ground.
One space vehicle which has gotten off the ground is the International Space Station. In 1993, the Clinton-Gore team added Russia to NASA's list of a dozen international partners. This plan, which according to the White House would save billions of dollars and years of work, eventually did exactly the opposite, as experts both inside and outside NASA had warned at the time.
One benefit that the Clinton-Gore administration often brags about (and which a New York Times editorial highlighted Wednesday) is that designing the space station so it is impossible to operate without the Russians, serves national security by preventing unemployed Russian rocket scientists from selling their know-how to rogue states. This original noble goal quickly degenerated into a vain hope that has become a dangerous delusion and a cynical con. Hundreds of thousands of Russian missile technicians and engineers were laid off a decade ago, and have always been available for hire to anyone with cash. Even current administration experts have told Congress that missile technology continues to flow out of Russia into the programs of rogue states.
One final amusing sign of White House political whims dominating NASA is a project called Triana, a satellite literally dreamed up one night by Mr. Gore to provide the first full-face images of Earth's sunlit side and thereby inspire American children. Although many satellites already provide segments of such views, they have to be computer-stitched together, which apparently spoils the emotional effect even though it looks the same.
NASA quickly approved the project. The agency skipped normal science review and competitive evaluation processes. Once the project became funded, scientists added some useful instruments to the payload besides the camera.
Last year, NASA was drawing up plans for a space shuttle's mission to launch Triana during the current presidential campaign. As a bonus, the shuttle would carry an all-female team of astronauts. But then a secret NASA medical report dismissed the scientific value of such a mission. Delays also resulted from congressional budget hearings which were skeptical of the program's scientific merit.
Hardware development troubles have delayed Triana even further, and last summer it was bumped. In its place, another small payload was added. Embarrassingly, the replacement payload carried the code name "Lonestar." Perhaps that was too nagging a reminder of George W. Bush, so NASA had the satellite renamed "Freestar" to avoid the impression of a Texan of any kind replacing Mr. Gore's space brainchild. Images, after all, were rated higher than realities in this latest twist of the Clinton-Gore strategy for space exploitation.

James Oberg, a 22-year veteran of the space shuttle program, is now an independent consultant and writer in Houston.

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