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Let's Reform NASA Without Destroying It

Well, summer has come and gone and Congress is once again debating the federal budget. Unfortunately, budget cuts at NASA have become as much a summer ritual as the summer heat. First, President Clinton told NASA Administrator Dan Goldin to slice five billion dollars out of its five year budget plan (1996-2000). After blindly accepting the planned cuts, NASA underwent a breathless restructuring program that was aimed at eliminating waste and bureaucracy as well as restructuring several current projects. More recently, it was announced that NASA's work force would be cut by 28,000 workers. The above restructuring plan was designed to preserve all current NASA programs. This includes the International Space Station, the Cassini mission to Saturn, various Discovery program missions, like NEAR and Mars Pathfinder, and others. This summer, NASA was hit with an even bigger shock wave when a Congress intent on balancing the federal budget at all costs, announced that it was going to cut still an additional five billion dollars out of its five year budget plan. Rumor had it that Congress was looking at no new funding starts for the next fiscal budget. Already reeling from reorganization, Dan Goldin announced a massive realignment of NASA centers, which will certainly result in further job losses and a lack of qualified personnel. The cuts proposed by Congress are draconian and contradict the already stated goals of reforming NASA.

Goldin has made it clear that he disapproves of the planned cuts. Interesting that he should be so concerned, when he was indirectly responsible for them in the first place. Don't get me wrong. Administrator Goldin did make substantial headway in eliminating waste and controlling costs. However, he has made several critical mistakes. Goldin's first mistake was in flagrantly criticizing the agency he was appointed to lead. His open bravado about how NASA is a wasteful bureaucracy that could run on less money as well as his harping on the expensive big ticket projects as wasteful and "bad" gave Congressional Republicans a very visible and it would appear, willing, target. Question - Does an employee go to his employer or the person who writes his paycheck to tell him or her that he has done a terrible and wasteful job. That is certainly not prospect with common logic.

The worst mistake that Goldin could have ever made was in openly accepting the cuts proposed by the supposedly "science and R&D friendly" Clinton administration. Goldin, like any good administrator who should be looking out for the interests and integrity of his agency, should have launched a formal protest against the cuts. He shouldn't have let the proverbial steamroller roll right over him without a fight. Hopefully, with the next round of cuts, Goldin will not be so timid.

Many in Congress, such as Newt Gingrich, have stated their wish to make NASA more "efficient, cheaper and more effective." The secondary goal is to "refocus NASA on what it does best, basic scientific research, space science, and the human exploration of space." I couldn't agree more with that statement. An aide to Congressman Dana Rohrbacher has explained in Aviation Week & Space Technology, that "Goldin is making NASA more efficient, but NASA is not more effective." My question for him is: `How on earth do you expect NASA to be more effective when you keep cutting deeper into its budget?' NASA hadn't even finished its restructuring plan yet. How do massive budget cuts make scientific research better and more effective when they throw programs into disarray? Am I missing something?

If Congress wants NASA to cost less yet be more effective, it should listen to its many scientists, engineers, and supporters. In other words, NO MORE CUTS!! NASA's budget should not run below $14 billion. A stable budget is the only way to guarantee that any agency can run smoothly. It reduces development delays, as well as prevents the unwanted waste of money through inadvertent cancellations of projects (like CRAF). I believe that Congress should pass an "Immunity of Recision" bill that protects missions from the possibility of being killed after scientists and engineers have spent years of their lives, and taxpayer money in developing those projects. That way there would be no further wasting of funds. The savings from eliminating bureaucracy and waste should be funneled back into other space projects (as Dan Goldin promised to do a year and a half ago). It shouldn't be taken out of the agency for other uses (for example, the $200 million saved from restructuring Cassini could have funded a new Discovery class mission). That way, taxpayers get more science for the money spent.

Unfortunately, those of us in the space exploration community have to deal with the reality at hand. NASA's very mission is being threatened, and a number of scientists and engineers are nervously awaiting the proverbial pink slips at NASA centers such as Ames Research Center in Mountview, which could see its entire space science department eliminated. Undergraduates such as myself, who are looking at possible careers in planetary science, are having to seriously rethink their career options. The aerospace industry will take another hit by some additional 25,000 jobs or more as contracts are suspended. Congress has the gall to believe that such an occurrence will make NASA more effective? In the end, NASA will most likely have no choice but to run on less money. Regardless of this, I will continue to do what I can politically to support NASA through congressional letter writing and such. even if others who don't care about the science and technological future of this country say it's a waste of time. Unlike other people, I am certainly not going to roll over and play dead!

Michael Koller Geoscience Sophomore