Don't throw it away
Say it ain't so. NASA: the Mars Polar Lander mission has been declared a failure, and the $161 million spent on the project are supposedly down the drain.
Popular opinion is that its space exploration endeavors are a federal budget guzzler and are not worth anyone's time or taxes.
This is one of the great misconceptions about the American federal budget. Compared to what the United States spends on national defense, paying off the debt, and the abominable entitlement programs lovingly known as Social Security and Medicare, the funding NASA receives is a penny in the federal piggy bank.
On a recent airing of CNN's "Talkback Live," citizens questioned a NASA researcher about expenditures they found to be absurd, such as $8,000 gloves and other seemingly minuscule pieces of equipment that cost several million dollars. The researcher responded by explaining that equipment for space exploration is highly technical and requires precision, and therefore more funding, even though the supplies seem like normal household items. NASA has been criticized for wasting too much money when in fact it has not received an increase in funding since the late 1980s.
But the larger issue that ought to be addressed is the flippancy of the federal budget's priorities. Education is supposedly one of the top items of each presidential candidate's agenda, but the amount of funds allocated to educational endeavors in this country proves that this claim is merely a political tool.
Improving American education lies not only in strengthening America's public school system. It includes providing a fair chunk of the federal budget for NASA and other agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts. Both of these have experienced budgetary cutbacks due to lack of public and congressional support, and they will not recover unless future administrations make a sincere effort to revive them.
After being cut down to size by the House and Senate appropriations committees, this year's budget for the NEA is barely $98 million. President Clinton had initially requested $150 million; though a generous amount, it still pales in comparison to the monstrous funding - a whopping 60 percent of last year's surplus - that Clinton promised to shower onto "saving" Social Security.
How ironic it is that televised panels are debating the usefulness of scientific research, and the Senate Appropriations Committee barely provides the NEA with two-thirds of its much-needed money, when billions of dollars of the federal budget are allocated to entitlement programs, which are rarely questioned for their usefullness.
"Saving" Social Security and Medicare has become the modern politician's mantra, and it is fed to politicians by influential groups like the American Association of Retired Persons. Education lobbies are less powerful and will continue to wield less influence if NASA continues to get a bad rap and the NEA continues to be viewed as a flowery liberal agency.
For both NASA and the NEA to be experiencing such funding problems reflects this nation's pathetic regard for federally funded education. The problem is a national anti-intellectual climate we are living in; one that caused NASA to fizzle after the space wars with Russia ended, and one that will continue to slowly kill valuable agencies like the NEA. This implies that political gain, like beating Russia to the moon or producing the world's most Nobel laureates, is the most valuable part of education.
True, the public ought to question how any federal agency, including NASA, is spending its money. But that NASA has faced such an outpouring of criticism and truly expensive government programs are showered with support reflects how uninformed the public is on where its tax dollars actually end up.
Some say that we ought to help the "poor, starving children on earth" before we explore Mars.
If we stop space exploration or support for the arts, there will still be poor, starving children. The money that would have supported education would be transferred straight to the Social Security account.
Obviously, NASA is going to experience occasional failures - it is attempting complex projects that have received endless hype but laughable financial support. However, its value lies in its contributions to American education, to space exploration in the long run. Before there is any more discussion about cutting funds for NASA, the public ought to reexamine its national priorities. The federal piggy bank is large, but useless - if it is not soon put to good use.
Sheila Bapat is a political science sophomore. She can be reached at email@example.com.