WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The battle to kill the space station will resume this week when the Congress returns from the July 4 break, thus offering the U. S. space program a chance at salvation from its severest threat -- the myopia of NASA and its friends in industry and on Capitol Hill.
In June, the House of Representatives, after seriously deliberating a move to terminate the space station, voted to keep it going by cannibalizing scarce funds from the rest of NASA to provide $1.9 billion for next year. The distasteful nature of the rescue formula was reflected in the vote, 240-173, a weak showing for a colossal enterprise. The scene now shifts to the Senate, where a sensible outcome would be taps for the space station. In space politics, however, good sense is a scarce commodity.
With cost estimates that have ranged from $8 billion to $40 billion over the past six years, the space station is one of the great loose cannons in federal fiscal affairs. Paradoxically, as the costs have risen, the plans have shrunk, resulting in designs for less space station at higher costs.
In repeatedly redrawing the plans, NASA has always preserved a role for humans in space. Yes, they run up the costs and can exceed the performance of robots and instruments only in the production of ecstatic commentary on the excitement of space travel. But NASA's political strategists consider people in space essential for stimulating public attention and congressional appropriations.
Space scientists could just as well do their work with instrumented satellites. To gain their support for the space station -- after a decade of neglecting science in space -- NASA told scientists to get on board, literally and figuratively, or do without facilities for space research.
But rising price estimates and successive rounds of cost shaving have reduced the space station from the originally planned orbiting research center to little more than a no-frills celestial motel. The scientists who were planning to use it have glumly denounced the cut-down version as inadequate for their research.
Though the space station does not exist, and will not for several years, if ever, NASA has spent $5 billion drawing and redrawing its plans. That's double the annual budget of the National Science Foundation, the government agency responsible for supporting science in universities. But NASA operates on a different scale of spending.
The space agency is evasive and vague on what would be done aboard the space station. There's talk of using it as a staging base for an expedition to Mars. But it's difficult to avoid the impression that the space station, though lacking a technological role, serves nicely as a welfare program for the aerospace industry.
NASA and its friends mobilized all their resources for the House battle, including a contingent of European and Japanese space officials who argued that the U.S. had enticed them into designing their space efforts around the space station. Their warnings to Congress against contract violations were music to NASA's ears.
But unforeseen economic burdens, including a lingering recession and the costs of German unification, have come along since the European Space Agency signed up as a partner in the space station project and decided to build a laboratory and a mini-shuttle for the venture. Europe's space bureaucrats are keen to proceed as planned, in harmony with their friends in NASA, but the same is not true of the European governments which must pay their bills. A gracious escape from big space spending would not be unwelcome in Bonn or Paris.
Various formulas have been offered for dealing with the space station. At one extreme is the $1.9 billion voted by the House. At the other, is the proposal, defeated by the House, to terminate the present project and devote $100 million to rethinking the project. In between are plans for proceeding at lower spending levels and a slower pace.
The menace of misbegotten high-tech extravaganzas is that they eventually tend to elude their captors and acquire political constituencies that assure their prosperity.
If NASA is to be saved from itself and its friends, the duty of the Senate is clear: Kill the space station.
Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of the newsletter Science & Government Report.