The life-and-death saga of the space station, that annual drama on Capitol Hill which plays to an audience of government officials, aerospace companies and scientific associations, is ringing down the curtain on its final episode for this season.
The story line, which during the past decade has moved with the glacial pace of a daytime soap opera, remains familiar. The 1991 script concludes with a fairly happy ending for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which sees the station as a dynamic symbol of the nation's leadership in space technology and as an inspiration for youthful Americans contemplating careers in science and engineering.
The space station, Congress has decided this year, will receive a new infusion of cash to keep the project alive, but there's always next year to worry about.
One informed observer reports that the conventional wisdom in Washington this summer is that while NASA and the space station won another round in 1991, Congress will deep six the craft next year.
"The space station is going to win this year, but according to the information I get, it will lose next year because there is just nothing behind it," said Robert L. Park, a spokesman for the American Physical Society and a member of the faculty at the University of Maryland College Park. "It has no mission," Dr. Park maintained in an interview, "and people are beginning to wake up to that."
However, there's something a bit special about next year. It will be the 500th anniversary of the European discovery of the New World. What an awkward time to scuttle this high-tech voyager when the Western Hemisphere will be awash with retold tales of discovery and dreams of expanding horizons.
A former NASA administrator, with a nod toward Christopher Columbus, once hoped to have the station in earth orbit in 1992, manned by engineers studying methods to make improved materials in ways only possible in the nearly weightless conditions of orbital flight; medical researchers developing new pharmaceuticals to cure diseases and prolong life; and ambitious astronauts testing humankind's stamina in preparation for round-trip flights to Mars, which George Bush and Carl Sagan say is a good idea.
Today, 1999 appears to be a more likely date for the debut of the station, assuming Congress continues to support the program.
As always, there is the matter of money, which a good many people insist is a serious problem in this, the world's largest debtor nation. Some estimates put the final cost of the station at $30 billion to $40 billion, up from an early estimate of $8 billion. About $5.6 billion has been appropriated for the program to date.
In addition, there is a considerable number of scientists who are less than enthusiastic about spending more money on the station. They fear that station funds would, over the long haul, come from other sources of government support for science, particularly the National Science Foundation, which funnels cash college and universities for research and education.
This view is disputed by the Bush administration.
"Opponents of the space station have presented the trade-off as being between space and science, but the administration does not believe that the debate should be cast in those terms," Dr. D. Allan Bromley, assistant to the president for science and technology, wrote in The Washington Post July 10.
"Those who argue that money saved from the station will go to research and development overlook the pressures being exerted Congress," Dr. Bromley observed. "The point missed is that the probability of funding both science and space is maximized when the two stick together as part of a future-oriented coalition."
Some critics of the station insist that science in space could be more sensibly funded if NASA would place a greater emphasis on orbiting robots and remote sensing devices to achieve the kinds of goals the agency envisions.
That option would very likely reduce the role of astronauts in space which, in turn, could diminish public interest in the NASA program and erode the stature of the agency in the hierarchy of federal agencies when Congress is appropriating future funds for the many branches of the government.
People in space can, to be sure, do things that robots cannot do, but people in space also keep the role of NASA in the public eye.
For instance, it is probably fair to say that most fourth-graders know that astronauts regularly fly into orbit aboard winged space shuttles, but how many people of any age know that there is an unmanned spacecraft aloft today, named the Cosmic Background Explorer, that is studying the origin and structure of the universe, one of the most intriguing endeavors in current cosmology. The cost of this craft is $150 million.
If this argument about astronauts vs. science has a familiar ring it is because the debate has been in progress, off and on, since the establishment of NASA in 1958. Only the antagonists have changed.