WASHINGTON -- Will the president and congressional leaders have the guts to kill the space station when they hold an unusual "space summit" to rescue NASA from impending financial collapse?
The summit, tentatively set for early February at the White House, is intended to find a solution to NASA's fiscal plight, mainly attributable to the costs of the station.
The project, called Space Station Freedom when it was born in the Reagan administration, now bears the title International Space Station, but in design and budget share, it is overwhelmingly an American venture.
NASA's total budget, now $13.7 billion, is scheduled, by both Congress and the White House, to decline in the coming years. Meanwhile, the space station consumes $1.8 billion a year, and the Space Shuttle will take billions more when it starts delivering construction materials for building the station.
Below the cap
The space-station budget is below the official cap of $2.1 billion per year imposed by Congress, but the budget-busting test will come when construction in space starts next year. In the wild blue yonder of space economics, costs are rarely tame.
With both money and political courage in short supply in Washington, the most likely outcome will be a repeat of past responses to NASA's crises -- evisceration of many small, politically pale scientific, environmental and aviation research programs in favor of the highly visible, though useless, space station.
The celestial turkey, repeatedly scaled down to where it's merely an unfurnished orbital motel, has survived on aerospace pork-barrel lobbying, NASA hoopla and as a welfare project to keep ex-Soviet space experts out of mischief.
The continuing and expensive participation of Europe, Japan and Canada in the project is cited by NASA and its friends as another reason to keep it going, especially since NASA enticed them in with glowing forecasts of industrial benefits from research aboard the space station.
Few benefits to industry
Upon reflection, however, industry sees few benefits from research in low-gravity conditions, which, after all, can be established on Mother Earth. Among the foreign partners, enthusiasm for the venture has waned, and each budget cycle brings another suspenseful crisis. For the major foreign partner, the European Space Agency, funding is always precarious.
With NASA on a downward budget course in the deficit-cutting plans of Congress and the White House, the station's huge bite into space finances is no longer supportable. The rationale for the project has dwindled to the point where the purpose of building the space station is to gain experience in building a space station.
In the beginning, the station was touted as both an industrial laboratory and a stepping stone for a manned mission to Mars. Discussion of that journey ended when the cost estimates came in at $400 billion or more.
Not much left to cut
Following savage downsizings and privatization of Shuttle operations and other activities, there's not much left to cut at NASA.
Under its administrator, Dan Goldin, the agency has shifted from building multi-billion-dollar behemoth research satellites, which put years of work at risk in one shot, sometimes disastrously, in favor of many smaller, cheaper satellites.
But even these economy models are threatened by NASA's impending budget crunch. A big helping of additional money would solve NASA's problems. But the president and the Republican congressional leadership are sworn to deficit reduction. Opening the gates for NASA would bring a rush of other interests, all asserting their importance and worthiness.
Termination of the space station would be the wisest step for assuring the best returns from spending in space.
Don't bet on it.
Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of the newsletter Science & Government Report.
Pub Date: 12/10/96