Mikulski and the Space Station's Search for a Mission

August 01, 1993|By RICHARD MUNSON

Washington. -- Although the House of Representatives, by a close margin, recently endorsed continued funding for a proposed orbiting space platform, Sen. Barbara Mikulski could be the deciding factor.

The Maryland lawmaker, chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), long questioned the station's very purpose. As late as 1991, she wondered, "Is it simply going to be a condo in the sky, waiting for someone to occupy it, with not a clear idea of what we would do there?" Yet after NASA redesigned the project, Ms. Mikulski declared, "This senator is a convert to the space station, and like a lot of converts, I am a true believer."

Like Sen. Mikulski's position, the very purpose of the space station has been altered considerably throughout a convoluted, oft-forgotten history that reveals much about the problems behind cutting federal spending to reduce the deficit.

The idea of a space station engendered surprisingly little political or public support during the first 25 years of the nation's space program. Although NASA saw the station as a critical step toward its "ultimate objective [of] manned travel to and from other planets," the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations never adopted the idea.

NASA, however, never abandoned it. For nearly a quarter century, the space agency devised design after design for a permanently manned orbiter. Virtually ignoring congressional appropriators, it siphoned money from diverse accounts to have McDonnell Douglas, Rockwell and other aerospace contractors

draft a wide variety of construction plans.

NASA persisted more for bureaucratic than pragmatic reasons. After serving as NASA's administrator in the early 1980s, James Beggs conceded, "The feeling was that unless we could get a station, the manned activities would truncate, and we'd run out of mission."

Mr. Beggs and NASA sought a broad coalition of support by promising an all-purpose station that would do virtually everything for everyone. The manned orbiter was to be a research laboratory for scientists; a manufacturing facility for industries; a permanent observatory for astronomers; and a transportation node, servicing facility, assembly facility, storage depot and staging base for astronauts on ambitious future missions.

By 1991, each of these eight initial justifications had been abandoned; one wag described the station's changing mission as "a revolution of declining expectations."

NASA, while overestimating the station's uses, intentionally underestimated its cost. The agency initially claimed that an eight-astronaut station could be assembled in space by 1991 for a total cost of $8 billion. By early 1991, the space agency had spent $5.6 billion and constructed nothing; as of mid-1993, almost $9 billion has been obligated, and still nothing has been built.

NASA also cleverly lined up international partners to strengthen its coalition of supporters. American officials approached the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada well before any commitment had been made to the project. According to NASA's deputy director for advanced programs, "We knew that if we found ourselves locking in with international agreements, it would be awfully hard to say no to the program."

Budget director David Stockman labeled the facility an example of "high-tech socialism," and White House science adviser George Keyworth questioned the very purpose of a manned space program. Still, Mr. Beggs' arguments eventually convinced Ronald Reagan to endorse the idea of a space station in his 1984 State of the Union address. The president later labeled the project "Space Station Freedom" and cited the potential for "research in science, communications, in metals and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space."

Despite Mr. Reagan's declaration, battles over funding persisted. Over the next few years, Congress approved only 40 percent of the funds Mr. Reagan requested, forcing NASA to stretch out the station's planning and construction. Bickering within NASA throughout the 1980s further stalled the project, with astronauts wanting artificial gravity, and space manufacturers demanding no noticeable gravity at all.

Grandiose schemes and endless reconfigurations sent Freedom's cost soaring. The General Accounting Office in 1991 calculated construction at $40 billion and total expenses, including operations, at some $118 billion, meaning the space station would cost half a million dollars for every minute of its useful life.

Largely because of this huge price tag, the orbiting platform has periodically faced calls for its elimination. Appropriators in the House of Representatives voted to cancel the project's funding in the fiscal 1992 budget, but their action was overturned on the House floor by a massive lobbying effort orchestrated by the Bush White House and the aerospace industry.

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