WASHINGTON. — A WHOLESOME CHANGE has become visible now that the smoke of budget battle has lifted from Capitol Hill: Forced by economic necessity, there's been a lessening in the high-tech megalomania that has long dominated space and defense programs. And there's been a boost for research that helps pay a country's bills rather than squander its resources.
Invoking its power of the purse, Congress decreed a rethinking for the most grandiose project, the space station. Initiated in 1984 by Ronald Reagan, the station has since soared from an estimated $7 billion to $38 billion. The reality is that the costs are unknowable because of uncertainties about design and problems of construction.
No matter. The Bush administration, meticulously frugal with domestic social programs, has enthusiastically sounded the call to carry on. A different view was taken by the Congress, now in the grip of a zero-sum budget system. The White House's 1991 budget request for the space station, nearly $2.5 billion, was cut by $550 million.
The reduction was accompanied by a joint admonition from the House and Senate appropriations committees directing NASA to adopt a step-by-step approach, starting with a ''man-tended'' or unmanned facility and moving later to a fully manned operation. Warning that a revision is necessary ''if any station is to survive,'' the committees directed that only one-third of the 1991 space-station money be made available, with the balance contingent on NASA's good behavior.
A total wipeout was congressionally decreed for another extravaganza, the proposed manned voyage to Mars via a base on the moon -- estimated at $300 billion to $500 billion over 10 to 15 years. Ignoring Mr. Bush's request for $37 million in study funds, the committees said maybe some day, but not today.
Congress whacked the Strategic Defense Initiative, appropriating only $3 billion of the $4.5 billion requested for pursuing the Reagan-initiated quest for a missile-defense system. Even with a truncated budget for next year, this folly's five-year toll will be close to $20 billion, with a realistic missile defense no closer than it was at the outset. But with a dwindling budget and no prospect of reversal, Star Wars is slipping into oblivion.
Recognizing the economic component of national security, Congress boosted spending for research on high-tech civilian products. Mr. Bush and his free-marketeers have shunned these efforts as manifestations of ''industrial policy,'' i.e., federal marketplace meddling. The economic pinch has lately induced the White House to reconsider its stance. But without waiting for a conversion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress found $35 million, rather than the $10 million requested by the White House, for the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program.
A 1987 congressional creation aimed at encouraging research collaboration by industrial firms, universities and government laboratories, the Advanced Technology Program was nearly throttled by Mr. Reagan and ignored by Mr. Bush. Led by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the program's frustrated creators have now acted to set it rolling.
Impatience with the White House response to the nation's competitive plight has inspired a congressional infusion of funds for the Pentagon's role as an industrial booster. In other nations, that role is filled by government departments with industry, technology, or both in their titles. The comparable U.S. agency is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Responsible for the quality of the industrial base that supports defense, this agency helped start the computer industry and has been in the vanguard of many other technological advances.
Earlier this year, the White House fired the Advanced Research Projects Agency's chief, Craig Fields, because of his enthusiasm for boosting high-tech civilian industry. Congress, sharing that enthusiasm, has now specifically earmarked $75 million for the agency to support research on High Definition Television and associated electronics, together widely regarded as the next blockbuster in civilian consumer goods.
Constituent pressures incline Congress toward whittling rather than killing ill-conceived federal programs. And so, the space station and SDI survive at lessened, though still great, cost. But there are strong signs that the priority winds are shifting.