WASHINGTON -- The Goddard Space Flight Center was spared from closing yesterday, but a key House committee voted instead to cut spending for the Greenbelt facility's primary mission by more than one-third.
The House Appropriations Committee rejected a subcommittee decision last week to close Goddard -- which employs 13,000 -- and two other space centers by 1998. In its place, the committee accepted a plan by House Republican leaders to scale back the main project at Goddard and cut 3,300 jobs.
"It's a giant leap for Goddard," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who worked with other Maryland lawmakers to derail the subcommittee proposal. "But the dark side is that those cuts will cost 3,300 jobs."
The House Appropriations Committee also voted to restore money for NASA's proposed Cassini mission to Saturn. That mission, which had also been canceled in last week's austerity drive, is important to lawmakers in Texas and California.
But to achieve the savings required to meet this year's targets for the Republican drive to balance the budget by 2002, the Appropriations Committee opted to cut $333 million from the "Mission to Planet Earth" program based at Goddard.
Mission to Planet Earth, an environmental program, uses satellites to study how the atmosphere, oceans, land and life on Earth interact. A key goal is to gain a better idea of how these factors contribute to climate changes, such as global warming.
The proposed cuts represent 37 percent of the $900 million that President Clinton requested this year for the Earth Observing Satellite System, which is the heart of the Mission to Planet Earth program, and represents the major work of the Greenbelt center.
"EOS was the bill-payer," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who offered the reprieve for the space centers yesterday, a switch from last week when he led the surprise plan to close them.
Although Mr. Lewis said that he had sought other places to cut among the two dozen agencies in his portion of the budget, he made clear that he was seeking to convince officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that more cuts of some sort are coming their way.
"NASA has never met a program it doesn't like," Mr. Lewis said.
Maryland lawmakers who mounted a vigorous effort to quash Mr. Lewis' original handiwork celebrated a bittersweet victory yesterday at a news conference.
"This is very, very good news; we had 13,000 people at risk," Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland's 5th District said of the civilian and contract employees who stood to lose their jobs if the Goddard center was closed. "However, it did not come without some cost. . . . I am not euphoric."
In fact, yesterday's victory largely belonged to Rep. Robert S. Walker, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, which directs policy for the space program.
Mr. Walker has unveiled a bill that would cut Mission to Planet Earth by $323 million next year. The Appropriations Committee yesterday effectively endorsed his position, which is likely to be adopted by the House.
But Ms. Mikulski, who serves as ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles NASA spending, pledged every effort to restore the full budget for Mission to Planet Earth.
Her chances of success brightened yesterday when her subcommittee was given slightly more to spend than the House panel. Differences between spending levels approved by the House and Senate would have to be resolved in a joint conference committee.
While the fight goes on, families of the 3,300 affected workers "are being put through hell," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening.