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Fisher: No Planet Left Behind - Well, Maybe One

No Planet Left Behind - Well, Maybe One

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 05 September 2006

I was serving in the Kennedy administration on May 25, 1961, when, just like millions of other Americans, I heard JFK tell the world, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

And, like most of those who heard the president's words that day, I felt proud to be an American. After all, we Americans have always been optimists and risk-takers.

There were many skeptics who believed that JFK's vision was not doable. But it became a reality on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong took his "one small step for man and a giant step for mankind." Sadly, Kennedy did not live to see his dream come true.

Why, then, did I find myself feeling so skeptical when the Bush administration announced last week that it was awarding a multibillion-dollar contract to Lockheed Martin Corporation to build a new manned lunar spaceship at a cost estimated at $7.5 billion?

Well, I'm not usually given to conspiracy theories, but I recall that it was January 2004 - that's two thousand and four - when President Bush first announced his plan to build a new generation of manned spacecraft to go to the moon and perhaps to Mars. So I had to wonder why his plan fell off the radar for so long and whether the timing of this latest announcement might just have something to do with the upcoming midterm elections.

Or, in true, conspiratorial fashion, I pondered whether this announcement had anything to do with NASA's quiet change of its mission statement.

That statement has always contained the words "to understand and protect our home planet." But these words were recently quietly removed from the agency's responsibilities. And coming on the heels of attempts to silence NASA scientists who went public with remarks about climate change, that action caused me to wonder whether the Bush administration was yet again trying to minimize global warming by changing the subject to the new Moon-Mars mission.

So I was heartened to discover I wasn't alone. The deletion of the reference to "our home planet" was also apparently noticed by Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman - two folks not usually associated with conspiracy theorists - who wrote NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, saying, "At a time in which evidence grows on an almost daily basis of the potentially severe impacts of climate change, we find it inexplicable that NASA apparently no longer views protecting and understanding our home planet as a priority." Taking Earth away from NASA will result in a $3.1 billion budget cut over the next five years.

Now, don't misunderstand. I am all for exploring the moon or Mars or even poor little disenfranchised Pluto. I just question whether we ought to be spending $7.5 billion - and that's without the virtually inevitable cost over-runs - at this particular time.

Consider that our 2007 budget deficit is projected to be, at a minimum, $286 billion in fiscal 2007, up from this year's projected deficit of $260 billion - excluding most of the DOD spending for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Consider also that the $2.77 trillion 2007 budget President Bush sent to Congress contains $3 billion in cuts for education, with no new funding for the $12.7 billion Title I program for low-income students; that it sharply decreases funding for supporting the arts, vocational education, parent resource centers and drug-free schools; that it reduces spending for Medicare by $35.9 billion over five years, including cuts in funding for hospitals, nursing homes, home health care providers and hospices; that it eliminates research and development funding for geothermal and hydropower, cuts $930,000 from wind power R&D, and two-thirds of the $23 million designated for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs in the 2002 Farm Bill; that it cuts a number of important environmental programs, including several initiatives that actually save taxpayers money; that it decreases by $78 million (13 percent) funding for federal energy efficiency programs to reduce pollution; and that it actually decreases the funds available for Homeland Security.

Defense spending will, of course, increase. Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans will remain in place, while a 10-year-overdue increase in the minimum wage is ignored. And a recent report by the US Census Bureau tells us that millions of working Americans are living below the poverty line and without health insurance, and that the gulf between the haves and the have-nots has become a chasm - and a dangerous threat to the fabric of our society.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

We shouldn't be surprised by any of this. The president's budget reflects the priorities he has had since his first day in office.

Except the new trip to the moon and beyond. But, then again, this is an election year!


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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