The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had it pretty rough last fall. In September they lost the Mars Climate Orbiter, a satellite that was supposed to study the atmosphere of Mars. Then in December, they lost its mate, the Mars Polar Lander, which was supposed to land near the south pole of Mars and study the polar surface.
NASA's goal for these shots was to determine whether there has ever been enough water on the surface of Mars to support life. Together, these failed launches cost a total of $356.5 million.
Although scientists, like most people, can usually learn something from their mistakes, they would have learned a great deal more had these missions been successful. For practical purposes, that $356.5 million was wasted money.
To Congress, a few hundred million dollars may not seem like a lot of money. It is only a small fraction of NASA's total budget of more than $13 billion for the year.
But it is a lot of money to the rest of us, and I have to question the wisdom of the way that money is being spent. If successful, those probes would have given us a few more clues as to how much water may have been on the surface of Mars several thousand or millions of years ago.
How much is that information worth?
The Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander are only two of several missions NASA has planned for Mars. Mars probes began with the Mars Pathfinder and Global Surveyor in 1996. More missions are planned for 2001, 2003, and 2005.
I think that money could be better spent closer to where we live. Spending billions of dollars each year on space travel -- the privilege of a handful of people -- seems like an unnecessary luxury when the average citizen has difficulty getting to work and doing business because our roads, railroads, waterways, and skyways desperately need improvement.
In this century, air travel will grow at a phenomenal rate. It has already become the dominant mode of business transportation. According to the FAA, U.S. airlines now handle more than 600 million passengers a year. By 2015, that number is expected to top one billion.
Anyone who flies regularly knows that airports are clogged, resulting in missed flights and other delays. As air travel grows, we can expect that to worsen, unless we build more airports and expand those now in use. And without improvements to the air traffic management systems, we can expect more airplane accidents.
On Dec. 6, 1999, William Carley reported in The Wall Street Journal that air traffic controllers have been concealing near collisions because they fear punishment for operational errors. Our nation has an exemplary air safety record over the last few decades, but if controllers are able to conceal close calls that record may not remain exemplary for long.
With thousands of airplanes in the air at any given time, air traffic management can be a difficult business. In March 1999, John O'Brien, director of the engineering and air safety department of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), testified before Congress regarding the need to modernize our Air Traffic Control (ATC) system. After outlining all that needs to be done, he stated, "ALPA believes that ATC modernizations will flounder unless Congress provides a reliable funding stream that allows development of hardware, software, procedures, and training programs."
How has Congress responded? The total budget for the FAA is about half of NASA's budget, and most of those funds go to maintain current operations. Apparently, Congress believes that modernizing ATC equipment is not as important as studying the surface of Mars.
As a nation, I think we'd be better off if those rocket scientists at NASA were put to work modernizing our air traffic control system.
Air travel is not the only area of transportation being shortchanged by Congress. Our railroads have been neglected for decades. It is ironic that the U.S., which pioneered the development of rail travel, should now have a passenger rail service inferior to the systems found in countries as poor as Portugal.
I doubt I have to tell anyone how badly our roads need work. Traffic on the interstate highway system has reached dangerous levels. Nearly one-third of our bridges are so badly in need of repair they are considered unsafe by most engineers. Four-lane and two-lane feeder highways are clogged and in poor condition.
In order to balance the budget, Congress keeps cutting spending. As dollars get tighter, we need to ask which is more important -- looking for water on Mars or keeping our economy strong.
If we find water on Mars, only a handful of Americans will ever even know about it. But if we allow our transportation infrastructure to fall apart, our economy will crumble right behind it.
When it comes to budget priorities, let's keep our goals down to earth.