Another characteristic of Stone was his strong view that the end of the cold war marked a fundamental turning point for the nation as a whole and for JPL in particular.4 The demise of the Soviet Union removed the force that had served as the primary driver of the U.S. space program since its inception. In addition to continuing debates over NASA's mission—human versus robotic exploration, earth versus space science—the agency now faced a deeper, though related debate about its basic justification. Why should the nation devote billions of dollars each year, and the energy of many thousands of people, to exploring outer space?
Wesley Huntress, NASA's associate administrator for space science, declared in 1993 that exploration itself was insufficient. "Historical analogs show that serious, sustained exploration has only secured government funding for commercial, military, or religious reasons." Military competition with the Soviets had underpinned the space program in the cold war, but no longer. International collaboration offered one alternative (and one NASA would invoke for the space station), but Huntress judged this "not a compelling reason." Instead, Huntress declared that "Americans are more pragmatic than intellectual; they want real return for their tax dollars," and he hence settled on a primary justification of "near-and far-term economic vitality." The space program supported the aerospace industry, increasingly important in the international market for commercial uses of space, and would produce longer-term payoffs in technological spin-offs.5
Huntress's views jibed with new public surveys commissioned by NASA, which found that 75 percent of Americans had no interest in space, a propor tion that had remained more or less constant through the 1980s. Of the 25 percent interested in space, an even smaller fraction considered themselves both interested and knowledgeable—and most of those did not want more money spent on it.6 Most Americans, that is, were concerned with jobs and the economy, not space. In seeking to tap that 75 percent of uninterested Americans, NASA followed the lead of the new Clinton administration, whose campaign strategy in 1992 had declared, "It's the economy, stupid," and whose policies now stressed economic competitiveness, especially in high technology.
The end of the cold war had a more quantifiable effect on NASA budgets. The twilight struggle left a legacy of large deficits in the federal budget, which led Congress and the Clinton administration to make deficit reduction a top priority and put strict caps on discretionary spending, including NASA. The space agency got no help from the peace dividend, at least not in its budget. NASA and its congressional supporters tried to get defense cutbacks applied toward civil space, to no avail.7 As military space budgets plummeted from their Star Wars highs, civil space budgets fell with them. Excluding aeronautics, NASA's space budget peaked in fiscal 1992 at $13.2 billion (in current dollars), then declined to $12.5 billion in 1995; factoring in inflation made the cut even more substantial. Military space had peaked in 1989 at $17.9 billion (in current dollars), then declined to $13.1 billion in 1994 and $10.6 billion the following year. In 1995, spending on the civil space program again surpassed the military space program for the first time since 1981 — but only because military funding fell faster than NASA's.8
As NASA began absorbing budget cuts, JPL managers began to rein in and reverse the growth from the 1980s. Although the lab's budget in constant dollars peaked in 1988, the workforce had continued to grow; by 1992 JPL staff numbered more than 6,000 Caltech employees and 1,700 on-site contractors. Stone began drawing up plans to reduce the total workforce by 1,000 over the next five years.9 And that was not the worst-case scenario. Stone and his staff, along with Caltech's administration and trustees, worried about the possible closure of the entire lab, a prospect not contemplated since the dark days of 1981. As Caltech president Thomas Everhart noted in 1992, at a trustees meeting on JPL, "this is a time of triage — [the] only question is what is going to die."10
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