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Nothing better captures the decay of the Clinton presidency from the change-friendly, innovative liberalism promised in 1992 to the reactionary liberalism of today, determined to defend the welfare state at all cost, than Clinton's newest "reinventing government" initiative. Unveiled late last month, it promises to "reinvent" NASA with huge budget cuts.

In 1992, Clinton-Gore campaigned as the Atari Democrats. Unlike the hidebound Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis locked in to the Democratic past, they posed as futurists dedicated to global competition, high-tech/high-wage jobs and cutting edge science. So where do these two change-is-our-friend Democrats go for budget cutting? Farm subsidies? Welfare? Inflated government construction costs, a legacy of the egregious 1931 Davis-Bacon Act (that the administration has just promised to retain)?They go to space, the one area where the United States has the greatest technological advantage--an advantage that can be quickly lost without serious sustained effort. Under the euphemism of "reinvention," the administration is cutting NASA to pieces.

We're talking serious cuts: $5 billion from what would be needed just to sustain current programs over five years. That's $5 billion if you don't account for inflation: $8 billion if you do. This is an agency with about a $14 billion budget. Unlike the school lunch program that the Republicans have been pilloried for increasing by 4 percent a year, NASA gets actual dollar decreases. In 1994, NASA got $14.5 billion. In '95 and '96, it will get $14.3 billion. By 2000, it will be down to $13.2 billion.

The administration spin on these cuts is that NASA can meet them with streamlining, cutting the ususal waste, fat and duplication, NASA Administration Daniel Goldin, reportedly "stunned and depressed" by the cuts, plays the good soldier, bravely towing the administration line, promising to do more with less.

Nonsense, says the Congressional Budge Office. There is no way to reach these budget cuts by streamlining, which has reached its limits and will, in any case, produce very minimal saving in the next few years when the critical budget cuts will occur. In congressional testimony last month, CBO concludes that, "Ultimately, a smaller budget will mean a smaller program and fewer accomplishments for the civilian space program."

The problem, moreover, is not just the money but the destruction of America's space science infra-structure. The administration itself predicts that 55,000 aerospace workers, both inside and outside government, will lose their jobs as a result of these outs. That is 55,000 members of one of the most highly advanced scientific labor forces in the world. This from an administration that professes such dedication to American high technology and comparative scientific advantage in the global marketplace.

"Some people," noted the CBO pointedly, "question whether NASA could possibly maintain the scope of its current program with a federal work force that mighty be only half of its current size." The scope--or the safety. Says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, "There's only so much they can cut before things start to fall apart or blow up."

What to do? CBO suggests the painful and obvious: "Narrow the product line," i.e., cut out one or two of its main missions. "Specifically the agency could be directed to mothball its piloted spaceflight program or to shut down most of its unpiloted space science activities."

In other words, to meet Clinton's cuts, NASA can't just streamline. It must amputate. Clinton's "reinvented" NASA will be missing a limb. An earlier CBO report suggested three possible amputations. The boldest eliminates manned space flight altogether. It would "concentrate resources in those areas that are most likely to produce tangible payoffs....For example, funding would be available for refurbishing aeronautic facilities, including new wind tunnels."

It has come to that. From walking on the moon to refurbishing wind tunnels. This under a president who claims totemic connection to, if not direct political descent from John Kennedy, the man who sent us to the moon in the first place. Talk about American decline.

I don't know how anyone who has ever visited the Kennedy Space Center here can avoid being struck by its majesty. Forget the rockets, the shuttle, the launch tower. Consider only the bureaucratically named VAB (vehicle assembly building) where the rocket to the moon and now the space shuttles are pieced together before being moved to the launch pad. Fifty-two stories high, larger than the Pentagon, nearly tall enough to accomodate the Washington Monument, graced with a vast and dizzying lacework of pulleys and platforms, it is a late 20th-century cathedral, a stunning monument to the ambition and ingenuity of the age.

When the next centuries look back to the triumphs of the one, what will they recall? Our literature? Our art? Not a chance. They will remember us for this: Ours was the generation that first escaped gravity, walked the moon, visited Saturn--and then, overtaken by an inexplicable lassitude and narrowness of vision, turned its cathedrals of flight into wind tunnels.