There were two news reports issued recently that, while quite different in their subjects, make up a critical lesson for our times.

One report was from the Congressional Budget Office, which estimates that, contrary to President Bush's assurances, the present budget deficit will not level off at some $475 billion next year and then decline rapidly. On the contrary, it might soar to a high of $5.8 trillion by 2013 if all of Bush's tax cuts and other programs are enacted. And this doesn't count the tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars we're now told the reconstruction of Iraq will cost.

On the same day, we saw the report of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board that described NASA as a "deluded agency" with a safety culture "broken" by complacency and the need to stay on schedule and on budget (a task President Bush had given to his appointee, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe).

The report found that NASA had become complacent, and schedule- and budget-obsessed, and had not learned the lessons of the Challenger disaster 17 years ago. The budget pressures can be laid at the doors of various presidents who, through the years, persuaded Congress to pinch NASA's budget from a high (in 2002 dollars) of $25 billion in 1965 to $15 billion today.

These two reports tell a story that I can only call a flaw in our national character: Our unspoken belief that we can have our cake and eat it, too. Yes, we want a space program, but no, we don't want to go on paying all that money for it.

The NASA that won the space race with the Russians, that put men on the moon, landers on Mars and launched flybys of the outer planets, was, in character and attitude, a military culture. Not only did its astronauts come from the Navy and Air Force, but the priorities of its managers were those of generals on the battlefield – of good generals, anyway. Mission success and limiting losses were everything. Since then, with NASA the imperative of mission success has been diluted by cost effectiveness and schedule deadlines.

Spaceflight and military campaigns are unavoidably risky affairs in which it is imperative that those responsible eliminate avoidable risks due to haste, poor planning or funding inadequate to the task.

NASA is not the only "delusional agency" in Washington, as we've been learning from the appalling mess in Iraq. The White House and the Pentagon both qualify. The estimated $475 billion at which the deficit is supposed to peak next year does not include that terribly underestimated cost of pacifying and rebuilding Iraq.

While NASA was making dangerous haste in meeting its underfunded shuttle schedule, the Pentagon was preparing its "blitzkrieg-lite" for Iraq. We cheered the plan's success in achieving an astonishingly quick military victory. But the plan has proved inadequate in victory's aftermath and is bleeding our troops and our treasury. Yes, indeed, there has been a lot of delusion on display in Washington.

So what lessons do we draw from all this? No doubt there are many, but the bottom line is to be found in the bottom line of our nation's financial situation. President Bush has dumped the Republicans' long-held claim that they are the party of fiscal responsibility. With his tax cuts and Iraq policy (lest we forget, both of which were agreed to by a goodly number of Democrats in Congress), he is pushing the country deep into the hole.

We must face the fact that some of our proudest achievements and most serious commitments – such as our leadership in space and our international responsibilities on Earth – might have to be severely curtailed just to pay our government's daily bills.

We are choking on the cake we have eaten.


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(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

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