BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- When President Obama's bipartisan panel to reduce the federal budget deficit unveiled a proposal chock-full of deep spending cuts and tax increases last week, it sent ripples of angst across the country.
The items that most set both Republican and Democrat hearts afire -- Social Security retirement age increases, gas tax raises, military cutbacks -- seemed to border on reasonable. But the one that got me was "eliminate funding for commercial spaceflight" to save $1.2 billion by 2015.
I guess the post-Sputnik drive to have the best national space program in the world is officially being laid to rest. The panel obviously didn't recall the White House's reverence of "the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover" as stated on the front page of a 1958 booklet called "Introduction to Outer Space" which was produced to sell the idea of space exploration. Though Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the panel's co-chairs, acknowledged that commercial spaceflight is a "worthy goal," they said they were unclear why the federal government should subsidize it.
Here's a thought: if such a program wasn't bungled by sweetheart-deals involving contractors with no incentive to come in on time and on budget, it could be a profit center. Who will actually popularize commercial space flight by paying for the initially ridiculously expensive boarding costs? The super-rich and corporations looking to do some serious marketing tie-ins that will no doubt make them even more money. Why not position the government to reap the biggest amount of benefit?
Still, the panel isn't completely off the mark. Smart money is on the private sector, which has already made great strides in harnessing the capital and the brain power to make viable trips into space. Just look at British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic -- the suborbital spacecraft took its first solo flight on Oct. 10. And today 26 teams from seven countries are vying for the Ansari X Prize, which will award $10 million to the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 62 miles above the Earth's surface twice within two weeks. Contests like these spur the innovations that will lead to my great-grandkids' ability to perhaps vacation on the moon.
That $1.2 billion budget item had already been slashed from the $6 billion over five years that President Obama has proposed. Now, who would be surprised if our government's financial woes left us permanently at the mercy of other countries to get us to and from the International Space Station after the space shuttle fleet is retired next year?
That's what hurts. If the tough choice is made to decimate NASA even further, then the United States, which put the first men on the moon, will be taking a pass on the leadership opportunity, not to mention investing in the science and engineering innovations we all know can drive technological breakthroughs and job creation.
Worse than that, we'll be turning our back on reaching for the stars.
Esther J. Cepeda 's e-mail address is estherjcepeda(at)washpost.com.