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Questions for NASA

Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page A26

THE TWO ASTRONAUTS aboard the international space station have been asked to cut calories because, with the space shuttle out of commission, food supplies are running low. The aging but immensely valuable Hubble Space telescope is likely to fail within the next several years. The target date for the shuttle's return to flight after the Columbia disaster has continued to slip -- from March to September 2004 and now to May 2005 or beyond. And those are among the easier challenges awaiting whoever replaces Sean O'Keefe, who is retiring as administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Indeed, taking over at NASA is something like inheriting a house partway through a renovation job that turned out to be ill-advised and running way over budget. The space station is an orbiting money pit of dubious scientific value. Plagued by delays and cost overruns, it's now set to cost $100 billion to build and maintain, and it won't be finished until the end of the decade. The justification for continuing involves the billions already sunk into the project and the desire to avoid antagonizing international partners. By an even more circular logic, the need to return the antiquated shuttle to flight rests largely on its role in servicing the space station. But Mr. O'Keefe has resolved to save the Hubble not with a shuttle mission (too dangerous, he said) but with a robotic mission -- which is likely to fail, according to a new report by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science.

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And then there's the ambitious long-range vision President Bush set out for NASA in January, which would send humans to the moon and ultimately to Mars. Lawmakers were skeptical at the time, and with good reason. A few of the questions they rightly raised: What is the purpose? How much will it cost? (NASA estimates $100 billion by 2020.) Does it make sense to put so many resources into human space flight rather than robotics, or into a space program at all when so many other government programs will be shortchanged? Congress initially cut the president's space budget, but House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) -- whose retooled district now includes the Johnson Space Center -- intervened to ensure that NASA got its full $16.2 billion budget request last month. Mr. O'Keefe seized on that, saying it reflected "as strong an endorsement as anyone could have hoped for the national space policy that the president articulated."

Not so fast. Money shoehorned into an omnibus spending bill doesn't an endorsement make. The hearings on his successor's confirmation will give lawmakers a chance -- and it shouldn't be the last -- to weigh whether to issue the endorsement that Mr. O'Keefe so prematurely claimed.

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