WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The decision of a congressional subcommittee to deny construction money for the space station is a bang on the head but not a stake through the heart of the biggest folly on Washington's roster of high-tech extravaganzas. Nonetheless, it's a hopeful sign of rationality on Capitol Hill. And it's an indication that the new system of federal budgeting is fulfilling its goal -- to make clear that the pot of federal money is limited and excess here requires austerity there.
The space station is a monument to excess, even by the casual standards of NASA economics. Having started in 1984 with an estimated cost of $8 billion, it's now somewhere off in the thirty-something range, or maybe more. No one knows for sure, since NASA tends to be selective about costs, in a manner akin to a car dealer stating a price -- plus the cost of engine and windshield.
Even less clear is the purpose of the space station, which was originally conceived as a vast, multi-purpose research center and staging area for deeper forays into space. But as costs rose, the scale shrank, until the space station now planned by NASA is little more than a celestial motel for a handful of astronauts.
Even with the reductions, the space station isn't cheap. The General Accounting Office, which tracks such things for Congress, recently reported a price of $31.2 billion, but pointed out that the figure did not include at least $7.2 billion for various items that are essential for operating the facility. Among these, it said, are equipment for monitoring the health of the crew under long-term conditions of zero gravity, which has frequently induced disabling queasiness in space travelers, and a life-saving vehicle for emergency return to earth.
The muddled nature of space-station finance is evident in the General Accounting Office's observation that these and other items might actually add another $1.5 billion to the $7.2 billion of additional costs. NASA fielded that one by explaining that it had a reserve to cover overruns and surprises. But, according to the GAO, ''most of the reserve is needed to cover hardware development, which is where most research and development programs experience the largest cost increases.''
The decision to pull the plug on the space station was taken by a House appropriations subcommittee that had put the space station on a strict budget last year, limiting its annual growth to 10 percent per year and capping the yearly expenditures at $2.6 billion. In response, NASA conducted a ''descoping'' exercise, emerging with what it said was a no-frills space station, trimmed by $8 billion for a bargain price of $30 billion.
The request before the subcommittee was for $2 billion for the fiscal year that begins next October 1. But Capitol Hill is now bound by new rules of budgeting, and in contrast to previous attempts at fiscal discipline, the rules seem to be holding. The key rule is that growth in domestic discretionary spending is held approximately to the rate of inflation. And if any item in the discretionary account goes beyond that, something's got to give to keep the total within bounds.
The fiscal misfortune of NASA is that it must share a pot of money with several agencies whose agendas are in political fashion these days -- Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Science Foundation. Under the budget rules, each appropriations subcommittee is given a fixed sum to divide among the agencies in its jurisdiction. Concluding that the $2 billion sought for the space station could be better used elsewhere, the subcommittee voted to terminate the venture.
There are opportunities for a reprieve, in both House and Senate. The political urgency of a rescue attempt by the White House will be fueled by Vice President Quayle's close identification with the space station in his role as chairman of the National Space Council. Elimination of the project, on which nearly $5 billion has already been spent in planning and design, would be a rebuff to the vice president at a time when his public standing has sunk to new lows.
At this point, the space station is politically injured but far from terminated. Other big projects have bounced back from serious blows, prominent among them the B-1 and the Strategic Defense Initiative. The difference with the space station is that its folly is evident even to the technically illiterate. And under the new Congressional budgeting system, needy, powerful claimants are lined up to absorb that $2 billion.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.