Americans and Russians are combining resources to build an international space station - a unique orbiting laboratory that will open doors to future exploration while advancing technology for the benefit of Earth. The project is on time and on budget.
One might think NASA could breathe easier because of these achievements. Guess again. The space agency is fighting for its life. Congress wants to slash NASA's budget even though it already has reduced spending dramatically.
NASA is doing more with less. Each of the last four years its budget has declined. Today there are 22,000 fewer civil service and private contractor jobs. Over the same period NASA has strengthened major programs to keep America's edge in advanced technology, aeronautics, space science and exploration. Its New Millennium program is fueling a revolution in spacecraft design.
It used to take NASA eight years and $590 million on average to build a spacecraft. Soon it will be only three years and costs will be driven down to $85 million by the turn of the century. Instead of launching a few spacecraft every decade, NASA plans to send several probes into deep space each year, initiating a new golden age in exploration.
For reinventing itself - and concurrently reducing costs by operating faster, better and cheaper - NASA has received high praise from Vice President Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But despite all that NASA has done, last February the Clinton administration proposed chopping the space agency's budget by an additional 20 percent over the next five years. The announcement came as a shock to everyone in the space community. NASA, more than any other federal agency, has taken steps to reduce costs.
Most government departments would have signaled defeat and begun amputating programs. But the space agency has reexamined everything it does. Out of the impending doom, it created a new vision for itself and devised new methods of operation. NASA boldly declared it could meet the lower spending targets without reducing science or cancelling major programs.
To cut costs, NASA plans to eliminate an additional 26,000 civil service and contractor jobs, as well as consolidate programs. Each of NASA's 10 research facilities will be trimmed back and reorganized.
Some in Congress believe NASA has bitten off more than it can chew and inevitably it will be forced to close centers and relinquish a primary enterprise - either planetary science, Mission to Planet Earth, aeronautics, technology or spaceflight.
This may come to pass, but not because of the Clinton budget. If it happens it will be because Congress is poised to slash NASA's budget even further than the administration, reducing spending from $14 billion in 1995 (Less than 1 percent of the federal budget) to just $10.6 billion in the year 2000.
If Congress prevails, NASA's five-year plan will be thrown into turmoil. Instead of a controlled, deliberate restructuring, the space agency will tumble into chaos. And the agency - and America - will suffer a tremendous loss.
The question becomes: What part of NASA is expendable? Private industry will not step in to research global climate as part of Mission to Planet Earth. It will not conduct hypersonic research for airplanes of the future, or send spacecraft to explore Mars and beyond. It will not pay for the space station or the operation of the Hubble Space Telescope.
So what is to be done? NASA is not exempt, nor should it be, from reducing spending to help balance the federal budget. But there are limits to what can be reasonably accomplished before cuts become counter-productive.
Americans take pride in their space program. When spacecraft send back images from other worlds, we are awestruck and rejoice in the knowledge and discovery. When the shuttle reaches for the sky, our hearts go with the men and women aboard. And as segments of the international space station come together, we will experience another giant leap in exploration.
Space uniquely challenges our abilities and inspires children and adults alike. At the very moment NASA is returning to the glory days of the past, members of Congress want to snuff out its vitality, erasing our dreams and hopes for the future.
Congress should back away from its draconian cuts and support the administaton's budget. It should let NASA keep rolling on.