Investigators believe that superheated air inside space shuttle Columbia's wing and its wheel compartment may have caused the accident. Perhaps that was the immediate cause, but for insight into a possible underlying cause, it is worthwhile to look at evidence released just two days after that tragic event: the fiscal year 2004 budget of the United States government.
The budget shows that in real dollar terms and as a percentage of the federal budget, spending on NASA has plummeted since the mid-1960s. At that time, NASA constituted nearly 4.5 percent of total government spending. Now it only constitutes 0.7 percent. The results are predictable: a 22-year-old spacecraft with 1970s technology, beset by constant funding shortfalls.
OK, maybe even with unlimited funding and state-of-the-art spacecraft, occasional tragedies still would have occurred. But imagine NASA's capabilities if it had as much funding now as it did in the 1960s: perhaps it could build a completely redesigned space vehicle, or send a manned mission to Mars, or make a more concerted search for extraterrestrial life.
But any massive funding increase for NASA certainly will not happen anytime soon. While President Bush has increased NASA's budget modestly, long-term trends indicate that funding for that agency, as well as for many other government agencies, will continue to shrink. They are getting swallowed up by the ever-growing black hole of the federal budget: entitlement programs.
Almost two-thirds of the budget is tied up in entitlement programs, i.e. government subsidies to individuals. In the 1960s, entitlements - such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - constituted just one-third of the federal budget. There were ample tax dollars available to spend on things like space exploration. Today, most of our tax money is used as "free money" for other Americans. And there is no end in sight: with the coming retirement of the baby boom generation and the consequent demands on Social Security and Medicare, entitlements may devour three-fourths of government spending within a decade or two. And other go vernment programs will continue to get squeezed.
Even national defense is getting squeezed. While it may appear we are devoting more than ever to defense, such is far from the case in terms of percentage of the federal budget. In the early 1960s, the military constituted 45 percent of total government spending. Now it is less than 17 percent.
The Department of Transportation went from 4.7 percent of the federal budget to in the 1960s to about 2.5 percent now. Other agencies have undergone declines as well, such as the Energy Department, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency (since the 1970s), foreign aid programs, and the Corps of Engineers.
Contrast these with the Health and Human Services Department: it went from 3.5 percent of federal spending in the early 1960s to 23.5 percent today. Or the Social Security Administration: 14 percent then versus 22 percent now.
Traditionally, the main function of the government was to provide things that the private sector was not good at providing, such as criminal justice, national defense, environmental protection, space flight, transportation infrastructure, and income support to the disabled and to those who cannot work. But now the government's main function is to redistribute money among Americans, regardless of whether the recipients of that money are poor, middle class, or rich.
We got into this mess largely through poor design of the original programs. For example, when Social Security was started in the 1930s, the government took the easy way out by implementing a "pay-as-you-go" system rather than a "pre-funded" system; i.e. a spending program rather than a savings program. The same was true of Medicare in the 1960s. Now we are stuck. Once programs like that start, they balloon, since the idea of doling out free money is so attractive to politicians. Woe betide the brave politician who merely proposes slowing the rate of growth of such programs - not reducing funding for the programs but slowing the increase. He or she gets demagogued.
What about raising taxes in order to return NASA to the funding levels it enjoyed during the heydays of the 1960s? It wouldn't work. First, most new tax monies get sucked up by entitlements anyway. Second, Americans' appetite for tax increases is stretched to the limit. They are already having a tough enough time making ends meet, and the more you tax them, the less is their incentive to work and create jobs.
Those who lament reduced funding to NASA, the environment, transportation infrastructure, and other traditional government programs are often the same people who applaud increases in entitlement spending. If only they could see that their embrace of the latter is what's suffocating the former.
A great nation like the United States, with its huge population and economic output, should easily be able to pay for space exploration programs, much like we did during the Apollo missions of the late '60s and early '70s. Back then there was tremendous optimism that as technology advanced and our economy expanded, mankind was destined to journey farther and farther into the universe. But it has not turned out that way. There is still time to correct that mistake.
Patrick Chisholm is a principal writer and editor at PolicyComm, a consulting firm. He has a master's degree in international affairs/international economics from American University.