NASA is hoping to save Freedom with new designs

June 06, 1993|By Jeff Leeds | Jeff Leeds,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- As Senate deficit hawks prepare to trim President Clinton's economic program, NASA officials hope to save the space station Freedom from the congressional chopping block by redesigning the blueprints for the orbiting laboratory.

"This is going to be a very significant battle in Congress," said Dan Goldin, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "But the space station is crucial if we want to have any space program."

Tomorrow, leaders of three NASA design teams will present three blueprints of space stations to a panel that is expected to report to the president later in the week. One option proposes an alternative propulsion system for Freedom, which would be built in space over several space shuttle missions. A second option includes minor modifications to the existing design for the station. A third plan recommends that the station be built on Earth and launched into the atmosphere as a single unit.

The space station originally was estimated to cost $31 billion. President Clinton ordered the NASA teams to come up with three alternatives that would cost between $5 billion and $9 billion.

The proposals that NASA will present today will exceed those figures, because of several add-on costs that Congress had not seen in earlier estimates, such as operating costs or outlays for scientific experiments to be performed in space.

Nevertheless, proponents hope that by playing up NASA's attempts to cut costs, they can sell Senate appropriators on the program.

Those close to the redesign process say that lawmakers may get sticker shock upon seeing the cost of the space station -- already the government's biggest expenditure in research -- but that NASA officials have been meeting with key Senate space station proponents, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, to safeguard the project.

Ms. Mikulski heads the appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA funding. Her panel is to hold a hearing on the NASA budget the day that the oversight panel's report is due to the White House.

Critics have branded the space station, originally proposed a decade ago by President Ronald Reagan, as "an orbiting tin can" and "a black hole" for appropriations. But Mr. Goldin predicted that the space station would eventually pay for itself in scientific knowledge.

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