America's Space Future

June 09, 1991

The United States remains on track to put the manned space station Freedom into orbit before the end of this decade following a 240-173 House vote to rescue the program from threatened destruction. Senate approval of $1.9 billion to fund the space station in the coming fiscal year seems assured because of strong support from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., head of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over NASA.

For legislators troubled by spending caps that force a short-changing of many domestic social programs, the decision to support the space station was difficult but correct. It required the repudiation of calls by the powerful House Appropriations Committee to kill the $30 billion project -- a step that in our view would have undermined America's future in manned space exploration.

Senator Mikulski's position is interesting because it underscores basic issues in the space debate. Although Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center has comparatively little direct role anymore in manned space missions, its operations related to unmanned flight are a major part of its $2 billion annual budget, with 11,000 employees. So, in strictly parochial terms, why should a Maryland lawmaker be out front on the space station?

The answer is that both manned and unmanned space sciences are essential to what Ms. Mikulski calls "a robust and balanced civilian space program." While Goddard undoubtedly would have gotten more money this year if the space station had been canceled, over the long run it might well have been crimped. The space program, overall, needs to maintain momentum and retain its constituency if it is to fulfill its potential.

It is all too true that the space station has been downsized to the tune of $6 billion because of the federal government's budget crunch. As a result, some of its scientific capacity has been eliminated or reduced, especially in microgravity research and biomedical studies. But this scarcely justifies complaints of inadequacy from those who are against the program altogether. That is a process that makes the perfect enemy of the good.

There is an international dimension to the space station debate that also justifies congressional approval of the administration's $1.9 billion request. This country has contracts with Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency for joint work and contributions to the project. If the United States were to renege, not only would it incur the rightful wrath of its partners but it would send a strong signal to them, as competitors, that America is opting out and the space frontier is theirs.

The year before the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America is hardly an apt moment to cancel a project that symbolizes U.S. world leadership and destiny.

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