Budgeting for Disaster

NOBODY KNOWS, or has any way of knowing, what sequence of events caused the space shuttle Columbia to disintegrate. But that sequence started far before the launch itself. For years, NASA has suffered from a steady erosion of the agency's culture of safety.

The shuttle program itself has been plagued with recent safety-related problems, including a 1999 delay in the launch of Columbia due to a hydrogen leak; the grounding that year of Discovery with damaged wiring, a contaminated engine, and a dented fuel line; a delay in Endeavor's January 2000 launch due to wiring and computer failures; an October 2000 launch delay due to a misplaced safety pin and concerns regarding the external tank; the April 2002 cancellation of a scheduled Atlantis flight due to a hydrogen fuel leak; and the grounding last August of the shuttle launch system after fuel-line cracks were discovered.

In August 2000, an inspection uncovered 3,500 wiring defects in Columbia. Last July, the inspector general blasted the management of the shuttle safety program. And numerous stories are now detailing the failed efforts by engineers, over the past several years, to convince NASA to fund the inclusion of an emergency escape mechanism for shuttle astronauts to have available in the event of disaster.

Years ago, the American space program symbolized the aspirations of not just the United States but all humanity. Now it's far more parochial: an effort to seize the military high ground and to ensure for American companies the wealth of all the planets, including ours. With that shift, NASA's annual budgets have increasingly failed to invest in the safety of its astronauts or the maintenance of its physical assetsand NASA's bureaucracy has become increasingly resistant to criticism or change.

AS GOES COLUMBIA, so goes America.

It's a fluke of timing, but two days after Columbia's disintegration, the release of President Bush's proposed fiscal-year 2004 federal budget was eerily reminiscent of what has happened to NASA. As with NASA, Dubya's proposed $2.2 trillion budget sharply increases emphasis on the military and downplays investment in the basics. Even by the notoriously optimistic economic estimates of the White House, it also carries a staggering $304 billion deficit; one out of every seven federal dollars spent next year will not actually exist. Over half of the non-trust-fund spending will be for military purposes, without even including the cost of a possible Iraq invasion or its consequences.

Dubya's 2004 budget contains estimates for a federal deficit that are nearly triple those made by the White House only six months ago. Like NASA's budgets in recent years, it compensates for its unchecked military spending by failing to invest in the country's infrastructure and its people. Dubya's State of the Union pledge that his administration would not pass our generation's problems on to our children was stunningly preposterous. Among the things they'll inherit: the federal deficit growing by $200 billion every six months; the Chicken Hawk Club gleefully promising a 100 Years' War that will outlive our children (even if they're not killed by terrorist bombs); and the aftereffects of radically underfunding basic economic, social, and political infrastructure. Our kids will thank us.

The Bush administration's domestic agenda, as outlined in its 2004 budget, includes virtually nothing that would assist unemployed workers, help finance higher education, help rebuild the country's decaying industrial and transportation infrastructure, promote renewable energy, or help feed the unconscionable number of hungry children in our country. It essentially proposes to privatize Medicare. It does not, needless to say, exude any sort of urgency for defending Americans against unsafe drinking water, contaminated food, polluted skies or streams, unethical business leaders, lying stock-market analysts, or corporations vying to ship American jobs overseas.

THE BUSH administration's fiscal road map for the coming year does not prioritize the basics that keep us and our economy and society safe and healthy. Its authors are as unlikely to heed criticism, or to respond effectively to warning signs of trouble, as any entrenched NASA bureaucrat. Those warning signs are everywhere: persistent unemployment, staggering consumer debt, shattered retirement plans, accelerated global warming, rising anti-Americanism around the world, endless Adam Sandler movies.

The image of Columbia's splintered trail across the Texas sky is now firmly fixed in the minds of millions, because it signifies seven lives compromised. In many ways, the Bush budget proposal is equally frightening, because the tedious lines and pages of bureaucratese signify millions of compromised lives. The Bush approach spreads its impacts out for years to come; but the catastrophes it sets in motion are no less horrific.


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