WASHINGTON. — THE ALBATROSS known as the space station has scraped through another cycle of congressional skepticism, but only because of Washington's aversion to killing even misbegotten high-tech ventures. Congress is on the way to pruning the budget for the project, but the main effect is to render the space station anemic while it remains extremely expensive.
The misfortune is that the costs of even a spartan space station hobble NASA's ability to pursue more promising ventures. In the grand tradition of elastic space accountancy, estimates of the ultimate price range from $7 billion to $37 billion. The latter figure would make the space station the costliest government venture now on the books.
Fiscal folly is compounded by a remarkable dearth of purpose for the space station. There's talk of manufacturing exotic materials in zero gravity, but industry has shown only token interest. The space station has been touted as a way station for the manned trip to Mars endorsed by the president. But the unknown hundreds of billions that venture would cost are unavailable. If it got started, the Mars project would survive on pork-barrel momentum; rather than risk that, Congress has nipped it in the bud.
The annual sums sought for the space station are by far the biggest and most rapidly rising in the NASA budget. Last year, it received $877 million; this year, $1.7 billion. The White House sought $2.4 billion for the new fiscal year, but the Senate committee that votes money for NASA provided only $1.6 billion, while the House has settled on $2.2 billion. By comparison, NASA's annual spending on scientific research in space has remained stable over three years at about $1.6 billion.
The latest congressional cuts in the space-station budget have sent NASA scurrying to scale down the venture. But this has led to unpleasant repercussions in Europe, Canada and Japan, whose space agencies were successfully courted by NASA to construct costly space laboratories and other equipment to ''plug in'' to the space station. These partners say they have spent several billion dollars so far on the basis of NASA's assurances, and they cite formal agreements with NASA that prohibit the very unilateral changes NASA is considering.
Meanwhile, doubts continue to spread. Rep. Bill Green of New York, the senior Republican on the NASA appropriations subcommittee, has urged NASA to abandon the space station. In a talk in July to the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers, Mr. Green said that after almost $4 billion in expenditures so far, NASA ''has almost no hardware to show for it.'' A promising alternative could be developed, he suggested, by updating Skylab II, the roomy spacecraft that NASA successfully flew for long missions in 1973 and 1974. A Skylab revival would cost a fraction of the space-station project.
The congressman's skepticism was echoed by the head of the institute's Aerospace Research and Development Committee, George C. Sponsler III. He noted that the institute ''supports the great majority of the president's space program, but with one exception -- what we believe to be NASA's overemphasis of the space station.''
Political courage is required to terminate a project that has developed $4 billion worth of supporters. That kind of courage is lacking in Congress. And that accounts for the unfortunate likelihood that the space station will stumble on.