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EDITORIAL: Losing it in space

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Pity poor NASA. Rather than reaching toward the stars, America's premier scientific organization has settled its sights on studying shrimp schools beneath the Antarctic ice cap and sticky accelerators on Toyotas. Such is the scope of hope and change in President Obama's universe.

In his 2011 budget, the president zeroed out NASA's Constellation project, the package of launch and landing vehicles that were to replace the aging space shuttle fleet to carry Americans into space. As a candidate, Mr. Obama said he "endorses the goal of sending human missions to the moon by 2020, as a precursor in an orderly progression to missions to more distant destinations, including Mars." The O Force changed its mind. Killing the Constellation project means billions wasted while space-flight hardware collects dust. "Yes we can" has become "mission impossible."

This is not a cost-cutting move. The agency is budgeted to receive $19 billion next year, and Mr. Obama wants to throw an additional $6 billion at it over five years. The hitch is he wants to shift its mission toward climate research and airplane design. Anxious to stay relevant, NASA agreed to research the cause of Toyota's sudden-acceleration problem.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden said Thursday that federal money is budgeted for fostering the growth of the commercial space industry, including the development of space taxis. But if the results of the president's stimulus are any indication, command economic policy is an inefficient generator of jobs.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, has argued that the most practical move would be to keep funding the space shuttle program until a replacement vehicle is ready. That way, the nation would maintain the continuity of space travel and avoid further erosion of its faltering space program.

As NASA's wings are clipped, our competitors soar. The U.S. space agency even had to sign a $340 million deal with Russia on April 6 to transport astronauts to the International Space Station through 2014. By then, China intends to conduct an ambitious schedule of flights with its Shenzhou spacecraft. It doesn't take much imagination to envision the day when NASA must pay its Asian competitor large sums for American astronauts to ride into orbit as passengers. Thanks to Mr. Obama, the United States will be dependent on Russia and China for space travel.

The space program is a great symbol of the American spirit of achievement. The day this nation cedes the conquest of space to others is the day we admit that we have forfeited our competitive exceptionalism. Earth-centric activities like the study of the Antarctic shrimp ecosystem and automobile anomalies should be left to others. A less-costly NASA should be relieved of extraneous responsibilities and allowed to retain its core mission - one that no other agency can accomplish - the exploration of space.

On behalf of all Americans, Floridians should make certain the president gets the message loud and clear when he hosts a conference about the agency's future on Thursday in the Sunshine State: Let NASA be NASA.

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