Originally created 07/13/97

Build on NASA success



There are some things the federal government does well -collecting taxes, fighting wars and exploring space. There are some things it does badly, such as trying to improve the human condition with costly social programs.

The $9 trillion Uncle Sam spent from the 1960s to the present to eliminate poverty is an example of the latter. Pathfinder's Mars landing this month is an example of the former.

Imagine where we'd be in space now if we'd spent $9 trillion the past 35 years on exploring the heavens.

The Pathfinder mission, however, costs only $266 million - about $1 per American. And based on what we've seen and what scientists say they've learned about our closest neighbor planet, the money was well spent.

Credit for this success goes to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's ability to cut costs and refocus its efforts.

After the great moon landing of 1969, NASA had visions of spending multi-billions on human space exploration, but the public - as fascinated as it was with the moon landing -soon lost interest.

Thereafter there followed a loss of confidence in NASA, marked by the tragic Challenger explosion and problems with the functioning of the $3.8 billion Hubble Space Telescope.

But the downsized agency is now producing better results at less cost. This welcomed efficiency is due largely to the young team of scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena who developed and built Pathfinder.

No space program is going to blast off without mistakes or disappointments, but the Pathfinder mission is a reminder that such programs succeed more often than not. They can also yield unanticipated technological spinoffs in knowledge, products and services.

As long as NASA keeps its budget requests within reason, Congress and the public can be expected to go along. The federal budget runs to over a trillion dollars a year. Out of all those dollars, there are many worse ways for the government to spend a few hundred million than on space.