THIS IS about the time we were expecting a rescue mission to be announced that would save two popular space programs.
A space shuttle team would be dispatched to repair and update aging equipment on the Hubble Space Telescope, thus extending the life of an invaluable scientific tool. And the shuttle mission would mark the resumption of manned space flight, which has been halted for two years, since Columbia's explosion over Texas.
Experts have cleared the safety risk; Congress has voted its approval. Yet word leaking from Washington is that the rescue mission has been scratched from the 2006 budget proposal President Bush is scheduled to unveil next week.
It appears to be simply a matter of money. Hubble, the tractor-trailer-size whirling eye that has revealed astonishing secrets of the universe, was not high enough on Mr. Bush's priority list to make the cut in what is expected to be a very tight domestic spending budget. Manned shuttle flights to the space station are expected to resume, but not to make service calls on Hubble, which could run out of battery power by 2007.
This decision seems so cold and wasteful, it has prompted speculation of more complicated motives. Perhaps Bush budget-cutters figure the popular Hubble can fend for itself. (After all, Hubble is featured in several Web sites aimed at whipping up support for its continued future.)
Mr. Bush could thus present a budget without financing for Hubble, take bows for tight-fistedness, and later sign an appropriation measure to which the Hubble money has been added by Congress. Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski scored $300 million for Hubble in the monster spending bill enacted in November. She's vowed to leap into the fray again.
But Hubble and its Baltimore-based coordination team deserve better than that. Despite some early missteps, the telescope has proved to be one of NASA's most successful projects. It has taken humans to the beginning of time and back again, from one end of the universe to another.
Mr. Bush says he wants to resume manned missions to the moon and perhaps to Mars as well. His timetable is so far off, though, that the promises sound like so much pie in the sky.
For right now, the most sensible course is to stick with Hubble.