Budgeting for Disaster

Nobody knows, or has any way of knowing, what caused Saturday morning's horrific explosion of space shuttle Columbia, with its gruesome rain of metal and flesh across the pine woods of East Texas. It will take the various commissions and panels months, or longer, to even agree on a reasonable theory of the cause and sequence of events that led to the tragedy.

But that sequence started before, say, the loss of a piece of foam during Columbia's launch; it started, in fact, far before the launch itself.

For years, NASA has suffered from what a number of its critics charge has been a steady erosion of the agency's culture of safety. The shuttle program itself has been plagued in the last three years with an unusual string of highly visible safety-related problems. They include: a 1999 delay in the launch of Columbia due to a hydrogen leak; the grounding that year of Discovery with damaged wiring, a contaminated engine, and a dented fuel line; a delay in Endeavor's January 2000 launch due to wiring and computer failures; an October 2000 launch delay due to a misplaced safety pin and concerns regarding the external tank; the April 2002 cancellation of a scheduled Atlantis flight due to a hydrogen fuel leak; and the grounding last August of the shuttle launch system after fuel line cracks were discovered.

In August, 2000, an inspection uncovered 3,500 wiring defects in Columbia. Last July, the Inspector General blasted the management of the shuttle safety program. And in the wake of the Columbia disaster, numerous stories have emerged detailing the unsuccessful efforts by engineers, over the last several years, to convince NASA to fund the inclusion of an emergency escape mechanism for shuttle astronauts to have available in the event of exactly the sort of disaster that struck Saturday.

As has been endlessly reported, the Columbia's science-oriented mission in its last, ill-fated voyage was a rarity these days. Such reports rarely explained why science is such a low priority for the modern NASA: It has become an agency almost entirely given over to military, and secondarily corporate, priorities. Those priorities are on display each time satellite imagery enables the United States to send precision bombs down some Iraqi air vent or on to some Afghan wedding party. The civilian commercial priorities will be on increasingly visible display in coming decades, as mechanized missions begin exploring, and exploiting, the mineral wealth of the rest of our solar system.

Ever since the first Star Wars research funding, NASA has steered sharply away from the program remembered by most Americans (and most of the rest of the world) over the age of about 45. At one time, the American space launches, especially the moon shots, were widely seen as representing the aspirations of not just the United States, but all humanity. Now, the U.S. space program is mostly more pedestrian and parochial: an effort to seize the military high ground and to ensure for American companies the wealth of all the planets, including ours.

With that shift, NASA's annual budgets have increasingly failed to invest in the safety of its astronauts and the maintenance of its physical assets -- and NASA's bureaucracy has become increasingly resistant to criticism or change.

As goes Columbia, so goes America.

It's a fluke of timing, but today's White House release of President Bush's proposed 2004 budget is eerily reminiscent of exactly the sort of NASA budgetary priorities that have preceded and accompanied the last three years' worth of safety incidents, up to and including Saturday's tragedy. Like the modern NASA, George W. Bush's America circa Fiscal Year 2004 will make unprecedented, secretive, and largely unaccountable investments in militarism. As with NASA, Dubya's proposed $2.2 trillion FY 2004 federal budget downplays investment in the basics. Even by the notoriously optimistic economic estimates of the White House, it also carries a staggering $304 billion deficit. One out of every seven federal dollars spent next year will not actually exist. Over half of that spending will be for military purposes, without even including the cost of a possible war with Iraq or an ensuing occupation -- or the possible counterattacks throughout the Islamic world.

Dubya's 2004 budget contains estimates for a federal deficit that are nearly triple of those made by the White House only six months ago. Almost all of that gap is traceable to three components: a persistently poor economy, Bush's penchant for reducing the contribution to federal revenues made by the country's economic elites -- particularly through an unconscionable new ten-year, $670 billion tax cut plan included in the new budget -- and military spending, particularly for the new Homeland Security department and for the military's mobilization in the Middle East.

And the Bush budget -- like those of NASA in recent years -- compensates for its unchecked military spending by failing to invest in the country's people and infrastructure. Dubya's State of the Union claim that his administration would not pass on our generation's problems to our children might just rank among the most preposterous claims a powerful politician has ever made -- and that's saying a whole lot. Not only is the federal deficit growing by $200 billion every six months (care to extrapolate that rate through the end of a second term?), and not only is the Chicken Hawk Club gleefully promising a 100 Years' War that will outlive our children (even if they're not killed by terrorist bombs), but Bush's spending priorities, at least in the budget presented today, represent a radical underfunding of the basic economic, social, and political infrastructure that keeps our country, or any country, running smoothly.

The Bush Administration's domestic agenda, as outlined in the FY2004 budget, includes a privatization plan for Medicare that, if implemented, would throw to the wolves the health care needs of millions of elderly and disabled Americans. It includes virtually nothing that would assist unemployed workers, help finance the cost of higher education, help rebuild the country's decaying industrial and transportation infrastructure, promote renewable energy sources, or help feed the unconscionable number of hungry children in our country.

Dubya's version of what his father once called "the vision thing" once again does not, needless to say, include any sort of urgency for defending Americans against unsafe drinking water, polluted skies or streams, unethical business leaders, lying stock market analysts, or corporations vying to ship American jobs overseas. It does include nearly $6 billion, over the next 10 years, to develop a wide variety of vaccines against the preposterously unlikely advent of a terrorist bioattack using anthrax, Ebola, botulinum, or the plague.

The chances of such an attack are infinitesimally small; meanwhile, 20,000 Americans die each year from influenza while the country suffers from chronic shortages of flu vaccine. Bush's budget, in this as in so many other areas, is not about spending money in the most effective way to give the maximum help to the maximum number of Americans. It does not prioritize the basics that keep us, and our economy and society, safe and healthy. Its authors are as unlikely to heed criticism, or to respond effectively to warning signs of trouble, as any entrenched NASA bureaucrat. And those warning signs are everywhere: persistent unemployment, staggering consumer debt, shattered retirement plans, accelerated global warming and environmental degradation, rising anti-Americanism around the world, the expanding gap between rich and poor, endless James Bond sequels.

The image of a too-wide contrail across the Texas sky is now firmly fixed in the minds of hundreds of millions of people, not because a contrail in the sky is remarkable, but because of what that image signified. In many ways, the Bush budget proposal released today is equally frightening -- not because of the tedious lines and pages of figures and bureaucratese within, but because, again, we know what they signify: millions of compromised lives. With NASA's failure, one or a series of possibly small but clearly critical details resulted in a catastrophe as sudden as it was indelible. The Bush approach, handed to Congress today, spreads its impacts out for years to come. But the catastrophes it sets in motion are no less horrific.

Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange.


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