Rep. Jerry Lewis' plan to move the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt to California has been shelved for the moment, albeit at great potential cost to the state's economy. It was from the beginning a preposterous conceit. Yet Maryland lawmakers had to take the threat seriously. And even though the state now has been spared outright closure of the facility, the plan pushed through by House Republicans last week still could result in the loss of one-quarter of Goddard's 13,000 jobs unless the Senate balks.
Mr. Lewis, who chairs one of the House panels charged with making the specific spending decisions needed to carry out the GOP goal of a balanced budget in seven years, had proposed closing Goddard and moving its operations to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. -- conveniently located next door to his home district. The stated rationale was that eliminating the facility, along with the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., would save $130 million a year by 1998 -- savings that were needed, he said, in order to finance new benefits GOP leaders had promised to military veterans.
The scheme was flawed from the start. The missions of Goddard and JPL don't lend themselves readily to consolidation. Goddard's primary mission is to track and operate satellites in Earth orbit, while JPL develops, tracks and operates robotic explorations of the planets. Moreover, Mr. Lewis' plan gave no thought as to how to pack the 13,000 employees who now work on Goddard's 1,200-acre suburban campus onto JPL's 177-acre urban site, where work space and parking for its 6,700 employees already are scarce.
Unless the Senate restores the House Republicans' $323 million cut in Goddard's budget for next next, Maryland's economy still is going to take a big hit in the wake of Representative Lewis' ploy, which can be summed up as politics and pork.
Mr. Lewis hoped to force NASA chief Daniel S. Goldin to come up with additional spending cuts on top of the nearly $40 billion now planned. Failing that, he was attempting what amounted to a billion-dollar heist from Maryland's economy. (Mr. Lewis, of course, denied his plan was designed to advance his own political fortunes.)
Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who sits on the Senate panel that handles NASA funding, has vowed to try to restore the House cuts. But first she must persuade her colleagues that attempting to balance the budget by wrecking Goddard's programs makes little fiscal -- or scientific -- sense.