Deficit? What Deficit? Space Shuttle Finds Few Foes After Expensive D.C. Flyby

Not even Washington partisans and ideologues muster the fortitude to slam pricey Discovery farewell

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This handout photo provided by NASA shows the Space shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, flying over Washington skyline, including the Washington Monument, as seen from a NASA T-38 aircraft.

There's an old adage that if you want a friend in Washington, D.C., you should buy a dog. It turns out there's another way to win friends in the capital city: Mount an iconic spaceship on an American-made airliner and cruise--low--above D.C.'s monument-studded cityscape.

The Space Shuttle Discovery was given a hero's send off Tuesday morning, when it was flown on the back of a Boeing 747 aircraft from Florida to its retirement home at a Smithsonian facility outside Washington, D.C.

The nation's capital has for years been embroiled in a partisan fight over the size of government and the federal budget. But Republicans and Democrats alike escaped their cubicles and offices, lining Washington's streets to catch a final glimpse of Discovery.

[Space Shuttle Discovery Makes Final Flight.]

They soon returned to their work in congressional offices, government watchdog organizations and think tanks as Discovery headed to the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport in Virginia.

And the darnedest thing happened in a city that has become hyper-partisan: No one rushed to a microphone or hurriedly issued a statement slamming the flight as an expensive public relations stunt. Some reports have pegged the total cost of transferring each space shutte to its retirement site between $8 million and $11 million.As the 747-mounted space truck flew low over the Potomac River, DOTMIL wondered: How much is all of this costing?

Turns out the final price tag of preparing Discovery and its 747 escort will come in at more than the $1.8 million a typical shuttle transport flight costs NASA, says spokesman Michael Curie. The agency does not yet know the full cost of the Tuesday send-off flight, he says.

But the reason it will cost more than the usual transport mission is special cranes had to be installed at the Virginia facility where Discovery was offloaded, Curie says. "The work to anchor the cranes in the concrete and manually perform much of the work requires more people and more work time," he says.

NASA officials have for years complained about their shrinking budgets, several sources noted. So bring on the indignation about spending more than $2 million to say goodbye to a Space Shuttle, right? Wrong.

One former congressional aide-turned analyst who usually is among the first to harshly blast excessive government spending tells DOTMIL it is "probably for the better" that he withhold commenting on the flyby.

Several Republican congressional aides rejected the very premise, as one says, that anyone would dare question the costs of "sharing the shuttle with the U.S. public one last time."

Still searching for a critical eye, DOTMIL turned to one of Washington's most prominent--and vocal-government watchdog organizations, the Project On Government Oversight. But a spokesman offered no negative words, saying that slamming the farewell flight would be tantamount to calling "a national fireworks display on the Fourth of July a waste of taxpayer money."

"We'd be concerned if taxpayer money was wasted but I don't think the money spent for the Discovery's victory lap around Washington is something that can be easily compared ... [to] lavish spending," says Joe Newman, POGO communications director.

[Space Shuttle Discovery Salutes Nation's Capital.]

The lesson? Never doubt the impact of good public relations.

Still, it is Washington, where a critic is never too far away.

"I find the whole endeavor ironic. NASA and its boosters have been complaining about a lack of funding, and then they blow some change on the D.C. flyby," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-profit government watchdog group.

"In this budget environment," Ellis says, "spending precious dollars on public relations stunts does little to demonstrate that NASA has come to grips with budget austerity, much less figuring out next steps on the space program."

The Tuesday flight was a mere "political gesture, a forget-me-not," says Ellis, noting the 747 carried Discovery over the Capitol Building. "When you fly to D.C. from Florida, you hit Dulles before you hit Capitol Hill, that's for sure."

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