Big Science Decision Time

June 17, 1993

Bill Clinton says his is "the most decisive presidency you've had in a very long time." Well, let him prove it, with Space Station Freedom as a test case. He needs to give a strong go-ahead to this dramatic follow-on to the moon shot and the space shuttle. Then he has to be prepared to fight an uphill battle against some of his favorite constituencies.

The president compounded his difficulties by proposing a budget that would cut the estimated five-year price tag on the space station from $17.6 billion to less than $9 billion. An independent commission reported last week that this target could not be met. The result: a likely compromise at $13 billion. Mr. Clinton will have to ask for a $300 million to $400 million add-on for fiscal 1994 that will require compensatory cuts elsewhere.

We believe he should go for it even if it means killing or preferably postponing the government's $8.3 billion superconducting super collider now under construction in Texas. While the collider offers thrilling scientific possibilities, its timetable is not tied to the space efforts of other countries.

Japan, Canada and the European Community would feel betrayed if the U.S. were to abandon a project in which they have invested heavily. The Russians, too, hope to provide the escape vehicle and docking technology for the space station.

In the face of strong pressure to reduce chronic federal deficits, the president will not find it easy to defend both "big science" projects. If forced to make a choice, the space station is more compelling in terms of domestic politics as well as foreign policy.

Texas got the super collider with the help of George Bush, Lloyd Bentsen and Phil Gramm, Texans all. Now Mr. Bush is out of office, Mr. Bentsen is in the Cabinet rather than in charge of the Senate Finance Committee and Senator Gramm has been joined by another Texas Republican foe of big spending for just about everything but the super collider. Lone Star clout is diminished.

The space station, in contrast, has the political buttress of contracts in 30 states, especially California, Texas, Ohio, Alabama and Florida. Maryland, at least indirectly through NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, benefits by an estimated $2 billion a year.

If the president flashes the green light for greater advances in manned flight, he should insist on an overhaul of NASA's management and operations, starting with a 30 percent cut in payrolls for the space station project. NASA's cost overruns have a history of zooming past the stratosphere.

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