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Boondoggle in Space


Washington. -- The space station is a celestial motel, scorned by serious researchers as useless for advancing science and of questionable value for space engineering. But it survived a termination vote in the House last week and appears destined to sail through the Senate with perhaps $2 billion to spend next year, toward a total price tag of at least $30 billion.

The success comes at a time when government money for research is scarce. It's particularly tight for basic research, which seeks new fundamental knowledge, and industrial research, which aims for the marketplace. Why, then, is Congress committing a fortune to the space station when even the project's strongest advocates speak vaguely of its purposes and goals?

The answer is that science and technology have entered a new era, one in which they're prized, like highways or bridges, as job-creating public works. In the House debate, the strongest argument for the space station was that it bankrolls 75,000 jobs in 37 states. Opposing an amendment to close it down, Rep. Bill Lowery, a Republican from Southern California, the land of aerospace, declared: "A vote against this amendment is a vote for jobs right here on earth and now."

The jobs argument, propounded against a background of stubborn unemployment, masks the grotesque creation that still bears the heroic Reagan-era moniker Space Station Freedom. NASA, like any other bureaucracy, craves bigger budgets and yearns for visible mega-projects as a means of demonstrating importance and winning public support.

Following a tradition of "low-balling" estimates to avoid alarming the budget watchers, NASA initially priced the space station at $8 billion -- not horrendous for a design and construction project that would stretch out over nearly a decade. But when the final reckoning was in, the project was priced at about four times that figure. And to keep it at that level, NASA scaled down the living-space capacity from eight to four persons and eliminated funds for basic scientific equipment. Gone, for example, was the centrifuge that NASA had touted as essential for important scientific experiments -- though earth-bound specialists scoffed that even if the device were present, the space station was still a poor means for conducting research.

So, of what use will the space station be, beyond providing employment for the sagging aerospace industry? NASA once spoke of the space station as a staging area for an expedition to Mars, but current planning for a Mars journey does not include use of the space station.

Another argument in behalf of the space station is that it will provide hands-on experience in construction in space. Indeed it will, but the only foreseeable construction project in space is the space station itself.

Forgotten in the rush of space history is that in 1973 and 1974, the United States maintained in orbit -- without construction in space -- a great space station, Skylab, a 77-ton, 118-feet long vehicle that accommodated a three-man crew. Three Skylab missions were successfully carried out, with the crew of the third spending 84 days in orbit in 1974. Skylab produced important data on the biological effects of weightless on humans and also served as a platform for solar photography.

With political support for NASA dwindling, the Skylab program was abandoned. But an important lesson remains from Skylab and the marathon flights of the ex-Soviet space program: Construction in space is not necessary to provide an orbiting base for a long-term human presence. The fact that it can be done at far less cost than the space station does not wash away the problem that space is a poor place to conduct scientific research -- despite all the baloney about cancer cures waiting to be discovered in orbit.

There are better ways to promote employment than to sink $30 billion or more into a space extravaganza. But, as evidenced by the House vote on the space station, that argument is difficult to sell in today's economy.

Jobs -- 7,000 of them -- were cited as a justification for carrying on with the $8.2 billion Superconducting Super Collider, the colossal atom smasher under construction in Texas. A grumpy House, fresh from the fight over amending the Constitution to hold down federal spending, voted to kill the super collider as a signal of frugality. But passions have cooled. The Senate has voted to continue with it, and the job argument is being showered on the House to win a reversal.

So, welcome to our new welfare program. It's called science.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and medicine.

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