IF THE United States had unlimited sums to spend on space exploration, perhaps returning astronauts to the Moon and sending them on to Mars would make sense. But there are compelling reasons to first fund scientific research in our own world.
This observation is prompted by news reports that the space-travel initiatives announced by President Bush in 2004 are siphoning away federal money that would be better used for climate studies, including what may be a trend toward increasingly extreme weather here on Earth.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences notes that the earth-science budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been cut by a third since 2000, just as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is having trouble maintaining its mission to keep tabs on weather and climate.
At the same time, research scientists who advise NASA watch helplessly as budget dollars are being diverted to the administration's Moon and Mars programs. The result: Spending for such critical information-gathering instruments as weather satellites is being curtailed, with potentially dangerous consequences in the long term.
"If things aren't reversed, we will have passed the high-water mark for our Earth observations," Richard Anthes, co-chairman of the report panel, told the Washington Post. "This country should not be headed in this direction we need to know more, not less, about long-term aspects of climate change, about trends in droughts and hurricanes, about what's happening in terms of fish stocks and deforestation."
There is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing an aggressive deep-space program, but scientists point out that we've already been to the Moon and the administration's plans for Mars exploration faces enormous obstacles. These include the likelihood that astronauts would make it to the Red planet but die from long-term exposure to radiation before they could return.
Both initiatives, moreover, are so expensive that more immediate and practical scientific research - like climate study - already is facing steady fiscal starvation from government funding cuts.
Given continuing confirmation from reputable scientific authorities that the problem of rapid climate change is both real and urgently requires a solution, it would make sense for the administration to reorder its spending priorities.
If the President is unwilling to act, Congress would be wise to step in.