NASA's dream of space station may be deferred


WASHINGTON -- NASA's dream of building a permanently staffed space station faces another rude awakening this week on Capitol Hill.

Blame it on the inevitable linkage of the space agency's recent failures, a stubborn recession and the federal government's growing debt.

Those forces overtook a powerful House subcommittee last month when it signed a death warrant for NASA's $30 billion laboratory in space.

Now the agency's Capitol Hill advocates -- a determined band of space enthusiasts and members whose districts include NASA operations -- are getting a hearing today before the House Appropriations Committee. Later this week the full House is expected to debate the station's future.

Many NASA defenders are predicting they will lose both the committee and the House votes, but they remain hopeful about their chances in the Senate this summer.

This week's votes are skirmishes in a much larger battle provoked by last fall's budget agreement between Congress and President Bush. Under that plan, domestic programs now compete against each other for shrinking funds.

Democrats, who control Congress, favor spending on medical benefits and other bread-and-butter concerns, while Republicans promote scientific projects such as the space station and the Strategic Defense Initiative, a satellite-based missile-defense system.

Vice President Dan Quayle told a private gathering of the station's congressional supporters last week that he expected to hold Republican votes behind the project but feared it would be tough to attract enough Democrats.

Mr. Bush has said nothing publicly since the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles housing, veterans' and space issues voted 6-3 to cancel the station.

A White House spokesman promised a "full court press" to save the project, but many NASA supporters on Capitol Hill are grumbling that Mr. Bush personally must join the fray.

The move to kill space station Freedom has set the stage for a wide-ranging debate on space spending and, perhaps, the viability of NASA itself.

"This is beyond an attack just on the space station," said Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah.

NASA's chief of space flight, William Lenoir, warns that without the space station the agency might go into a five-to-10-year hiatus.

Proposed in the early 1970s but set in motion in 1984, the space station was originally supposed to be in orbit by 1992 at a cost of $8 billion.

NASA's latest estimates place the construction costs alone at $18.5 billion, with final assembly by the turn of the century. Congressional accountants say the price tag for getting the station into orbit could top $30 billion.

Today's hearing before the House Appropriations Committee puts the space station on the agenda of what many consider Congress' single most powerful committee when it comes to spending matters.

Its members -- respectfully known as the "college of cardinals" -- are expected to endorse the subcommittee's May 15 recommendation to abandon Freedom.

Angry over recent failures, such as the myopic Hubble Space Telescope, and the agency's reputation for deliberately underestimating costs, many congressional leaders are frustrated with NASA's once-alluring talk of exotic programs.

They see cutting the space station as a way to vent their feelings.

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