Jewish World Review April 20, 2004 / 30 Nissan, 5764

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Revisiting the final frontier | A much-anticipated study released this past week provided some rare insight into the NASA space agency and the mood and views of its 19,000 employees. Among the findings is the disturbing revelation that NASA employees generally do not feel "respected or appreciated." This is especially disconcerting when one considers the crucial and exciting work done by NASA.

The rovers that NASA successfully landed on Mars have already yielded evidence of the existence, eons ago, of a body of salt water on the red planet. And earlier this month, NASA announced the rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, will extend their mission.

NASA has also recently refocused on the goal of sending humans into space. In January, President Bush outlined a new plan for space travel that includes ending the space shuttle program when the International Space Station is finished, as well as the development of new and improved spacecraft. As part of the country's new vision for space exploration, NASA is planning to return humans to the moon between 2015 and 2020, then to eventually send them to Mars and beyond.

As usual, obtaining the funding to carry out such an ambitious plan is a serious challenge. Although NASA's annual budget has not yet been approved for 2005, there are indications of bipartisan support for the necessary increased funding. It is imperative for Congress to approve this increase and resist the temptation to freeze funding at last year's levels, as had been suggested by some.

I am as concerned as anyone about the more than half-trillion-dollar federal budget deficit. But to cut corners on space exploration while we continue spending so much on pork projects would be foolhardy. According to the 2004 Congressional Pig Book, Congress will spend $50 million for an indoor rainforest in Iowa and another $15 million for overseas dairy development. If we can afford these expenditures, we can certainly afford to expand the space program, which benefits all Americans. After all that NASA has done for our culture, our economy and our nation, we owe it to them and to ourselves to keep the dream of space exploration alive and well.

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There is no denying that space travel has yielded considerable scientific and medical advancements through the years. New technologies resulting from the space program include those used in digital imaging, global positioning systems and even smoke detectors. In fact, we've all gained significant dividends from the ridiculously small investments in the space program. NASA's budget accounts for less than 1 percent of total federal outlays, but the return on that investment is enormous.

The general public supports the space program. An Associated Press-sponsored poll in January found that of 1,000 adults, 75 percent agreed that the United States should continue to send humans into space.

Count U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., whose district includes Cape Canaveral, among those who clearly see the benefits of this new space exploration vision.

"I think the idea of a new generation of motivated, talented, young people with expertise in high-tech, high-risk and high-payoff missions is good for the entire industrial base," Weldon says. "U.S. aerospace accounts for the largest portion of manufacturing exports for the United States. Our international competitors, however, also see the value in major aerospace investments and programs. They clearly see the strategic and economic value in space exploration and utilization. We ignore that at our own peril."

Many corporate executives agree that human space exploration bolsters technological innovation and benefits private industry. According to a January survey conducted by the executive search firm Christian & Timbers, nearly two-thirds of corporate executives agree that sending humans back into space will drive new technology and boost venture capital markets. As Christian & Timbers CEO Stephen Mader put it, "The space program has traditionally been an incubator for new technologies that achieve wider commercial application."

There is no question that humans will eventually return to the moon and travel to Mars and beyond one day. Congress has the ability and duty to ensure the future of American space exploration.

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Lou Dobbs is the anchor and managing editor of CNN's "Lou Dobbs Moneyline." Comment by clicking here.

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