Downsizing the Space Station


Supporters of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's manned orbital station have expressed satisfaction with the outcome of a protracted debate over its size and cost. For this fiscal year, Congress trimmed its $2.45 billion budget request to $1.9 billion, and President Bush has asked for a 7-percent increase, to slightly more than $2 billion, for next year. What has emerged from NASA design studios is a greatly downsized, and cheaper (by $6 billion) project.

Critics, including some who want a station built, note that downsizing the station -- cutting living space to accommodate not eight astronauts but four, shaving electrical power from 75 kilowatts to 56 kilowatts and trimming experimental space -- also alienates its constituency.

That's not only a problem at home. Ian Pryke, chief of the European Space Agency's Washington office, pronounced his satisfaction with the shrunken station, but a report in the industry newspaper Space News says his agency may also cut back its proposed Spacelab, designed to fly with the station. In addition to shrinking the size of Spacelab, the European Space Agency has proposed delaying deployment of the lab by a year to 2000 and scrapping plans to make it compatible with the American-built station.

Japanese space officials similarly have expressed approval of the American cutbacks, but the policies being announced at home evince serious doubts. The Science and Technology Agency, which oversees Japan's National Space Development Agency, has cut the budget request for space station support from $270 million to $160 million. The original request was more than double Japan's 1990 space station spending, but the government apparently wants more assurance that the United States will meet its commitments.

Instead of a space station that fulfills many functions, humbled NASA planners want to send up a manned laboratory which supports two goals: medical studies on the effects of long-term weightlessness and exposure to cosmic radiation on humans, and commercially oriented zero-gravity experiments. Other functions, living space and experiments could be added later.

Congress, which spent huge sums on this project before balking at the ever-rising cost, now has come forward with the kind of scaled-down space station it might support. And NASA has redrawn its plans to fit those limits. This could be the space station's last chance. The future of manned exploration of space could depend on the success of this scaled-down endeavor.

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