This column may well run before or after the scheduled launch of the space shuttle Discovery. Readers should know that editorial page editors choose when and where to run columns that often are written right before a news event. So let me say that my prayers for a safe launch and return are with the Discovery's crew.
But after the shuttle returns safely, NASA and the Bush administration absolutely must re-evaluate the value of the program versus its risks and costs.
I'm keenly aware that much of the modern technology we enjoy today has been a direct result of American efforts in space exploration. I'm not advocating that we abandon these endeavors altogether. But public opinion surveys suggest there is a severe difference of opinion among Americans over how and under what circumstances we should move forward in continuing our nation's efforts to explore outer space.
Beyond that, the hesitance about the coming launch among members of the NASA team responsible for mission safety is alarming. So was the apparent "reassignment" of one such NASA official who was a bit too public in expressing his misgivings about mission safety.
And the billion-dollar price tag that American taxpayers have picked up since the last tragic loss of shuttle and crew raises the biggest issue of all. Do we keep blindly spending mountains of cash on the space shuttle program without any regard for a cost/benefit analysis?
Consider that the fundamental developmental technology on which the shuttle program was initiated was the result of 1970s research and development. Today, the shuttles are referred to as "glass ships" because of the fragile foam tiles that protect them from the extreme heat of re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.
Experts still refer to the shuttle as an "experimental craft," one in which the odds of a catastrophic failure -- loss of the shuttle or the crew or both -- are somewhere between one in 60 and one in 100 launches. Would you get on a conveyance of any kind that had one chance in 60 of killing you?
Like many Americans, I'm troubled to see our nation continue to support the launchings of precariously constructed spacecraft, particularly when the shuttle program isn't a strategic component of the United States' long-term goals for space exploration.
And while I anticipate nothing less than a spectacular success in the coming mission, I admit I'll be uneasy from launch to splashdown as our nation once again puts a brave crew inside a patched and re-patched spacecraft that might be of better service in an aerospace museum.
The questions surrounding the space shuttle program only amplify as we turn our attention to other expensive government programs whose effectiveness is at least somewhat questionable. At what point do we stop throwing money after money in pursuit of noble goals with flawed means?
We are rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but without real assurance that another major storm won't finish the ugly work of washing away the Crescent City. Just now we're learning about huge sums of money that have seemingly vanished into air in the effort to stabilize New Orleans following last year's storm.
We routinely dispatch massive amounts of aid dollars to nations across the world, many of which take advantage of our generosity by perpetuating kleptomaniacal dictatorships, while others openly denounce us even as they grab the cash.
And then there's money for our military troops abroad, money for troops stateside, money for a massive transportation bill, subsidized drugs for the lucky seniors who understand how to qualify for them -- the list goes on and on.
As with the shuttle, many of these projects have merit when viewed in a vacuum. When costs and other programs are set aside, a lot of them appear more than worthy of support from the federal government. But the problem is that you and I don't pay for them in a vacuum; we pay for them one and all. And too many of them are predicated on dated concepts or flawed execution.
Certainly I say "Godspeed" to this current NASA mission. But after it safely returns, it's time for Congress to put the shuttle into "For Emergency Use Only" status and instead spend our money on projects that use 21st century technology for 21st century uses.
Better yet, don't spend it at all until we know how to spend it wisely.