Politics & Policy

Nasa Points Left, The Media Right

Whose budget is to blame for the Columbia disaster?

In This Week with George Stephanopoulos, the erstwhile Clinton spin doctor asked former astronaut Sally Ride where NASA would be focusing its investigation of the Columbia disaster. Ride said that during liftoff it appeared on video as though some of the heat shielding from the shuttle had fallen off, striking the shuttle in the area of the wing on the port side. Naturally, she said, “we’ll be looking pretty closely at that left wing.”

Unfortunately, it seems that Stephanopoulos and most of the other Sunday-morning talk hosts focused their attention on the implied blame of the “right wing.” Not the right wing of the shuttle — the right wing of the American political system.

Sunday TV hosts were following the lead of the Washington Post, which that morning had published a news piece that pointed readers to warnings about safety problems arising from budget cuts. The Post also ran an opinion piece by Bill Nelson, a Florida senator and former astronaut who spent most of Sunday morning telling talk-show hosts how he had been fighting with “the administration” about budget cutting at NASA. Not the “administrations,” but the singular “administration.” There’s no doubt which administration the Democratic senator meant.

It’s valid to ask whether budget cuts have had a negative impact on the shuttle program and other aspects of the space program. But on Sunday morning, I found myself wondering whether NASA’s budget had been cut at all, and by whom. I have since found out that, yes, it has been cut — and by Bill Clinton. Here are the facts:

NASA’s funding was cut by $99 million in 1997, $204 million in 1998, and $100 million in 2000. These cuts, including a small increase in 1999, resulted in a total of $303 million in lost funding during the last four years of the Clinton administration. Notice that the data above show an immediate increase of $700 million in NASA’s funding under the Bush administration’s first year and a total increase of $900 million for Bush’s first two years.

The data show a clear downward trend under Clinton and an upward trend under Bush. They also shed light on today’s spin cycle, and allegations that President Bush’s announced $470 million increase for NASA in next year’s budget is somehow unprecedented and therefore “political.” As shown above, George W. Bush increased funding for NASA by roughly $900 million over a two-year period. By this standard a $470 million boost is right on target, and actually smaller than the increase of 2001 into 2002.

Will Rogers once said, “Every American has a right to his own opinions, but no one has a right to his own facts.” Americans will hotly debate the impact of any possible budget cuts on NASA and particularly shuttle safety over the next several months. My own view is that safety has always been priority-one at NASA and that disasters such as Challenger or Columbia are an unavoidable cost of exploration that cannot be blamed on budgeting. Your view may differ, but whatever it is, the debate should start with the facts: NASA spending was decreasing under Bill Clinton and has been increasing under George W. Bush.

No Republican of good will would dream of blaming the horrible disaster of last Saturday morning on Clinton-era cutbacks. I pray that, likewise, that no Democrat would dream of using the tragedy to smear George W. Bush.

— Jerry Bowyer is the chairman of Bowyer Media, a company specializing in radio and television production, print and internet publishing and economic analysis.


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