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Crooked Orbit

Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page A30

"IT'S AS IF LEWIS and Clark had got all the way to the Rocky Mountains, and then turned around and headed home," says one scientist involved in the project. Even if that isn't a perfect metaphor for the planned termination of the Voyager spacecraft -- which has been traveling 28 years through the solar system and is just about to enter the little-known realm of interstellar space -- it does give some indication of the gloom felt by the scientists involved with Voyager since its launch nearly three decades ago. The news that NASA may cut the funding for continued monitoring of the twin Voyager probes should also cause Congress to ask, once again, whether the space agency really has its priorities straight.

These cuts are not being driven by austerity alone. The annual cost of keeping in touch with Voyager is about $4 million. By contrast, NASA's total projected 2006 budget is $16.5 billion, and President Bush's proposed budget calls for spending even more. Unfortunately, much of the increase will be spent responding to Mr. Bush's call for new manned missions to the moon and possibly Mars -- a project usually referred to in NASA documents as the "Vision." The ultimate cost of these missions, and their ultimate scientific value, is still unknown. NASA argues that some other changes -- most notably the end of the space shuttle -- will pay for most of that transition. Still, it is impossible not to observe that concern for the bottom line has also led the agency to announce cuts in funding for the Hubble Space Telescope, for aeronautics research and even for cuts in space-based earth science, most notably a large project to measure the impact of global-warming gases.

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Equally strange is the fact that a disproportionate chunk of NASA's budget is still being spent on the international space station, access to which for now depends entirely on Russian spacecraft. Yet U.S. funding for Russian spacecraft now depends on whether Russia complies with the Iran Non-Proliferation Act and ceases selling nuclear material to Tehran. As NASA rethinks its role in the 21st century, it is not surprising that the agency would change some of its priorities. But it is impossible not to observe that, under administration tutelage, this so far means that the space agency is funding one very expensive program of unknown value, another very expensive program of dubious value, and at the same time cutting the funding of smaller, cheaper programs whose worth was proved long ago.

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