The Bush administration's plan to build a vast outpost in space for U.S. astronauts suffered a very serious blow yesterday when a powerful House subcommittee voted to end the beleaguered project, which has been mired in disputes almost from the day it was proposed seven years ago.
Although many further votes could overturn the subcommittee's action, the move was serious because no congressional group that oversees NASA had ever before taken the station out of the budget, in effect expressing a complete loss of confidence in the mammoth undertaking.
The House subcommittee that took the action wields considerable power over the project, having triggered a recent redesign intended to make the outpost less costly and less complex.
Administration and NASA officials expressed shock and disappointment and vowed to fight, noting that the action came early in the fiscal 1992 budget process and that there was still time to rally support.
But analysts said that the vote boded ill in a time of great fiscal pressure. More than $4 billion has already been spent on the project.
"It's serious," said John E. Pike, head of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington. "It's never happened before," he said, noting that all congressional committees had expressed continuing, though sometimes grudging, support for the station project over the years.
The space station is meant to be the centerpiece of the U.S. manned space program. To be launched piecemeal in the mid- to late-1990s, it is to house up to four astronauts when it is complete.
Of late, it has been battered by conflicting cost estimates and disagreement among scientists about its usefulness. The General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress, recently put the project's 30-year cost at $118 billion.
The action to end the project was taken by the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA's budget.
In a closed-door session, the subcommittee voted 6-3 to eliminate President Bush's request for $2 billion for building a permanent manned station.
Instead, the panel put $100 million toward exploring the feasibility of replacing the large station with two small orbiting laboratories for life sciences and zero-gravity manufacturing.
"We simply can no longer afford huge new projects, with huge price tags, while trying to maintain services that the American people expect," said Representative Bob Traxler, D-Mich., who heads the panel.
The space station cut allowed the subcommittee to add money to other NASA programs, including education and basic science research, while still cutting more than $2 billion from Mr. Bush's overall $15.7 billion request for the space agency.
Representative Jim Chapman, D-Texas, who voted to keep the space station program alive, told the Associated Press, "It's early in the process, but there's no question it's a major setback."
A spokesman for Vice President Dan Quayle, who is chairman of the president's space council, was quoted by the AP as saying, "We'll be working to get the money restored."
The spokesman, David Beckwith, called the station "a vital link in our program for exploration, research and environmental purposes."
J. R. Thompson, deputy administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told the AP that the agency was disappointed, "but this is only the first step in the budget process," adding that "we intend to press the case for tomorrow's technology in the full House and in the Senate."