You have undoubtedly noticed that the U.S. national debt is Topic A in Washington.
Itís telling that many of those politicians screaming loudest about federal budgets deficits were silent on the issue for most of this decade. Now that many have taken up the Fox News-driven narrative that we are spending ourselves into national bankruptcy, the predictable posturing has begun. Earmarks are out. No government program is safe, the politicians declare (unless itís in their district).
I have heard many fair-minded folks argue that the new Congress with its Republican House majority and growing GOP strength in the Senate will change the way Washington works. Perhaps, but donít bet your pay check on it.
The so-called fiscal conservatives have recently moved during a lame-duck session of Congress to cut off debate and perhaps scuttle extension of the START treaty with Russia. Opponents say the strategic arms agreement, an extension of a similar agreement signed by President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1991, lacks provisions for modernizing U.S. nuclear forces and could prevent development and deployment of anti-missile defenses.
Those nuclear weapons left after U.S. and Russian ratification of the START II treaty should be properly maintained and secured. The U.S. does not need to modernize a nuclear force that has become a costly anachronism in the age of asymmetrical warfare. Furthermore, a deeply indebted U.S. simply cannot afford to build and deploy a new anti-missile system while it fights a war in Afghanistan with no end in sight.
Besides, even the global nuclear strategist Richard Nixon realized that missile defenses are destabilizing (a nation that could defend against a strategic missile attack is more likely to use its strategic weapons first), which is why President Nixon signed the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
We do not need and can no longer afford new nuclear weapons. The U.S. can barely afford to maintain its current arsenal, which for better or worse we must do.
Our foremost national security responsibility is to the men and woman fighting in Afghanistan.
There are numerous examples of where federal spending can be cut. The pain should be distributed equally, but the political reality is that those with K Street connections will again win out in the coming budget showdown.
In the spirit of compromise, I am prepared to give up something I consider vital to American science and technology: manned spaceflight. We are pioneers in exploring the solar system. But we are broke.
Until such time as we get our fiscal house in order, NASA should concentrate on less expansive unmanned exploration of space by making greater use of robotic systems. In this way, we can continue gathering knowledge about the Earth and the solar system while improving the performance and reliability of robots.
If designed properly, these systems will continue to deliver the biggest scientific bang for the buck.
What I propose is of course anathema to the U.S. space lobby. Too bad. Human space exploration, like many other U.S. programs, will be a pay-as-you-go enterprise unless and until we fix our budget mess.
What would you be willing to give up?