- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

While no one is certain what caused the catastrophic chain of events that ended with the disintegration of the Columbia, it is clear that far more troubles NASA's manned space program than failed thermal tiles and ignored e-mails. Since the Apollo moon landings, NASA has steadily lost scientific stature and engineering talent.
Numerous reports have demonstrated that NASA's sense of mission and on-the-edge spirit have been dulled by a risk-adverse culture and a bureaucratic mindset. For instance, the space agency is producing far fewer patents than it used to. Its researchers received a mere 89 patents last year, in sad contrast to the 155 they received in 1992, and in even more stark contrast to the 3,334 patents produced by IBM last year.
Unsurprisingly, NASA scientists are producing far fewer papers. Columbia's was the first purely scientific mission flown by the shuttle in nearly half a decade. "Science on the shuttle produces a spare handful of publications in areas like crystal growth and embryonic development, which happen to work best in a weightless environment," the New York Times said recently.
There appear to be several reasons for this decline. NASA, like any other government agency, has built up a fair amount of bureaucratic inertia, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the subcommittee on space and aeronautics, said the other day. That is undoubtedly true, even though it's inevitable that a certain amount of bureaucratization and waste will arise in any government construct.
More troublesome are the failures of the space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). Mr. Rohrabacher called the space shuttle "the most efficient system ever devised to burn tax dollars," and it is clear that the shuttle has neither reduced the cost of manned space flight nor made space access routine, much less risk-free. The ISS has had similar problems. President Reagan was told that the ISS (then known as Space Station Freedom) would cost $8 billion. It is now thought that the station will cost nearly $100 billion to complete, about $30 billion of which will come from the United States. Research returns from the ISS have been negligible, in part because crews must spend so much time on maintenance that they spend fewer than 20 hours each week on science.
The manned space program has other problems as well the contractor system set up by NASA may have contributed to the agency's safety and cultural problems. Congress should consider ways to increase the number of companies investing in space. Mr. Rohrabacher's "Zero Gravity, Zero Tax" proposal which would reduce the tax burden of companies investing in space-oriented enterprise and already is a component of the tax bill seems a step in the right direction.
Given the program's many problems, it isn't surprising that manned space flight has found an unenthusiastic reception among the younger generation. In fact, NASA's loss of vitality is almost palpable. Less than 11 percent of NASA's workforce is under 35 years old, while a decade ago, younger workers accounted for almost 30 percent of its workforce.
That aging workforce is an indicator of perhaps NASA's greatest problem: the clouding of its vision. Many have proposed that if the agency was given a well-defined goal such as a manned mission to Mars or the establishment of a manned base on the Moon it would again fire the imagination, innovative abilities and interest of younger Americans. While unmanned probes can do much of the science (and the agency's unmanned programs seem to be moving in the proper direction) manned space flight remains the heart of the agency and the pulse of many of its most ardent supporters.
Restoring that vision will require President Bush to lead the way. "It is time for the president to step up to the plate and give the space program direction or just let it go out of business," Mr. Rohrabacher said. "Great deeds are done one step at a time, and it's up to the president to outline what those steps are, and what the goal should be."
We continue to hope that Mr. Bush will do so in his 2004 State of the Union address.


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