NASA's Pie in the Sky

ALTHOUGH US space officials' eyes are momentarily fixed on the shuttle Endeavour's initial flight, it is time for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to wake up to a simple fact: The United States cannot afford the kind of space program NASA's 1993 budget request represents.

This is not because the agency wants too much money. It is not because mammoth programs such as the space station hog resources. It is because NASA's planning process is so seriously flawed that the kind of national space program it designs would be unaffordable at any price.

That process rests on the unrealistic assumption that a project approved and funded in its initial year will continue to receive the maximum desired funding even though this would require annual appropriations to rise steeply in subsequent years. This is not the same as covering costs that exceed original estimates. This is a planned increase in annual funding built into a project at the start.

All projects, of course, have projected lifetime costs. The problem lies in NASA's practice of trying to maintain a group of projects whose combined projected annual funding far exceeds any budget the agency can expect to get. NASA's present planning process even seeks to add new projects with little apparent thought as to how their expected "out-year" funding will affect projects already under way.

This kind of planning won't work when NASA's budget is likely to grow only enough to compensate for inflation.

Last year, the agency requested a 13 percent budget boost to $15.7 billion. It got a 3 percent raise to $14.3 billion. Yet NASA's 1992 five-year plan foresaw budget needs of $17.2 billion, $18.3 billion, $19.6 billion, and $20.7 billion for the following four years. Under administration and congressional pressure, it has cut its 1993 request to $15 billion. It may get even less than that. Furthermore, even with this austerity for fiscal 1993, NASA's plans imply an unlikely budget of around $20 billion by

1997.

Lifetime costs of many projects, including the space station, have been driven up by delays and redesigns needed to meet annual budget caps. Over the past five years, some $700 million has been wasted as projects were cancelled, according to the congressional General Accounting Office.

NASA's new administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, should listen to his agency's congressional friends who urge reform. The space program should be planned so that the projected annual funding of projects, taken individually and collectively, is realistic. Surely, if NASA could put a man on the moon in 1969, it can plan a workable space program today.

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