Meanwhile, Back on Earth

Monday, July 31, 2006

IN A MOVE AKIN to Dan Quayle invoking John F. Kennedy in 1988, President Bush attempted a Kennedyesque moment of his own 2 1/2 years ago when he called for a national effort to land Americans on the moon and Mars. It's not a clip they'll play on repeat in Mr. Bush's presidential library.

To few people's surprise, the president's soaring pronouncements flopped. But he still pushed NASA to carry on planning for new solar-system exploration. Now instead of just being an embarrassment for the president, Mr. Bush's astronautical ambitions are cutting deeply into NASA's budget to, among other things, monitor global climate change.

NASA is facing a real fiscal crisis. Even though the White House is demanding more, it hasn't given the space agency the funding it needs to build a launcher for the moon mission, pay an unexpectedly large bill for repairing the space shuttle and do everything else it committed to before Mr. Bush's Mars announcement. According to the space agency, NASA is diverting a little over $3 billion from its science research budget over five years. Though it's not clear how much of that will come from earth science, NASA admits that the climate-monitoring funding has steadily decreased since fiscal year 2004.

Dozens of projects are in jeopardy or have already been scrapped. NASA's satellite network that monitors global weather patterns -- including hurricane formation -- is aging, and replacements may arrive late or not at all. The agency's Hydros spacecraft mission -- which would have recorded soil moisture, an essential way to gauge the severity of global warming and its effects -- got the ax. NASA's budget for analyzing climate data is also shallowing, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has cut its staff.

The White House claims that even though NASA's funding for research on climate change is decreasing, organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association are getting budget increases for research on global warming. But NOAA says that it's not picking up NASA's slack with the new money. Besides, NASA is uniquely qualified to do things such as launch and maintain weather satellites.

Mr. Bush needs to get his head out of the stars. Even though scientists agree that Earth is warming, they still need to investigate how, and how fast, the phenomenon is proceeding -- a much more pressing task than landing on the Red Planet. The White House has to either pay responsibly for its exploration programs or cancel them.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company