America's Space Program Is Crashing; Final Shuttle Launch Symbol of Bloated, Disorganized Agency

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NASA has scheduled the final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis for Friday. This 12-day mission to the International Space Station not only will be the final space-shuttle flight, but, without a serious course correction, augurs the end of America's pre-eminence in space altogether.

Since 1960, America's space program has been the crown jewel and Exhibit A of American exceptionalism. It has been a symbol of our spirit, ingenuity and technological prowess. It has fueled and sustained an economic expansion unparalleled in history and has powered the most awesome and unrivaled global military capability since the Roman Empire.

Yet our space program has been in a slow and steady decline since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1989, our lead in all aspects of space and space technology was so large that even decades of neglect, waste and inaction have left us without peer in almost all categories even today. This won't last long. We are eating our technology seed corn.

How did this happen? It wasn't because of inattention. President George H. W. Bush saw the coming crisis as he took office in 1989 and took bold and courageous steps to prevent reversing course on space exploration. In the face of a call for a defense peace dividend in 1990, he added money for new launch capabilities, for programs including the National Aerospace Plane and a new National Launch System. He beefed up spending on the advanced work of the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), all while sustaining an almost 20 percent cut in defense spending overall.

For NASA, Mr. Bush requested a one-time 25 percent increase in spending and a plan for 10 percent annual increases for five years thereafter. On July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the landing of Apollo XI on the moon, he stood on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and called for a new round of exploration, back to the moon, this time to stay, and then a journey to tomorrow, a human mission to Mars. His justification was simple: It is Americans' destiny to explore and to lead. Mr. Bush's program plan was steady and even, with heavy emphasis on new technology development and new ways of doing business. His vision was clear: We would continue our exploration of space not in competition, but in cooperation with the nations of the world, even our recent enemy, Russia. None of those plans came to fruition. The reasons are clear. Our institutions are bloated, wasteful and bureaucratic. Elected representatives act as fiscal stewards of jobs in their states and districts, making efficient and coherent allocation of resources nearly impossible. …