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Cuts at Nasa as US comes back to earth

Its glory days long over, Nasa is facing a new round of cuts that could cost more than 50,000 jobs in the space sector by the end of the century and which can only hasten the day when the agency's most famous part, the manned shuttle programme, is turned over to private hands.

The cutbacks, outlined last night by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, are aimed at slashing Nasa's current $14.3bn (£9.23bn) budget by $5bn over the next five years.

According to the Washington Post, 55,000 of today's 215,000 space-related jobs in the US will have to go by 2000, the bulk of them in private industry dependent on contracts from Nasa, but some from within the agency itself.

Officially, the pruning is part of Mr Gore's programme of "Reinventing Government", which started life in 1993 as a gimmicky means of scaling back the Federal bureaucracy, before becoming a heaven-sent vehicle for the White House in the propaganda war between President Clinton and the Republicans on Capitol Hill over who can cut federal spending faster. But the reduction of Nasa reflects a wider disenchantment.

Obsessed by earthly problems such as crime, unemployment and immigration, Americans no longer appear very excited about space.

Once, Nasa was the embodiment of John Kennedy's New Frontier. But it is 26 years since men landed on the moon and, apart from the 1986 Challenger disaster, shuttle missions have become routine.

Even plans for a manned space station did not catch the public imagination. If the polls are to be believed, more than half the population now believes that funding for the agency should be slashed, or even eliminated altogether.

If so, privatisation - which already has the blessing of James Goldin, the Nasa Administrator, as well as the fervent backing of Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker - becomes the obvious option. With his Darwinian credo for Nasa of "the survival of the fittest," Mr Goldin has done much to streamline the once ponderous agency since he took over in 1992. He has reduced the shuttle budget by 25 per cent, partly by favouring small, non-manned missions over expensive shuttle flights.

Turning the shuttle over to private hands would yield even bigger savings. With the government as customer rather than owner, the programme would become far more flexible and cost-efficient.

The average cost of a scientific spacecraft could drop from $600m to $100m. Nasa itself would be freed to work on new technologies and projects. Its workforce will drop to 20,000 by 2000 from 26,000 today.