Space station program can still fly on $425 million, says NASA

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Congress has given NASA $425 million for its 1988 space station budget. That's $342 million less than the agency originally wanted and barely enough to keep the project alive. But in today's economic climate, NASA officials consider this a political victory for their keystone project. Andrew J. Stofan, NASA associate administrator for the space station, calls it a sign of strong congressional support. Speaking in anticipation of Congress's action during a recent interview, he said he would ``rather start slower and put together a sensible program'' than be subjected to roller coaster funding.

With the $425 million, $225 million of which is blocked until June, Mr. Stofan can proceed with what he considers a ``sensible program'' without the threat of a further cutback next year. The program is at a critical point in this respect. Preliminary studies and designing are finished. Work leading to construction is to begin.

NASA announced selection of the last four major program contractors Dec. 1. These contractors - Boeing Aerospace Company, McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company, General Electric Company, and Rockwell International - will supply the flight hardware for the station. NASA had already let other contracts for ground facilities and support.

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Stofan said he needed enough money for fiscal 1988 to keep contractors and the NASA space station workers busy, or the program might be seriously damaged. After he took over the program in July 1986, the station design was scaled down and resubmitted to the administration and Congress. The program emerged assured of a three-year budget that would provide stable funding, with $767 million for fiscal 1988.

That assurance ``didn't last six months,'' Stofan observed ruefully. But a realistic assessment convinced him that something a little less than $500 million would keep the program on target for having an operational station in orbit by 1996. Hence his satisfaction with the $425 million announced Dec. 17.

Maintaining fiscal momentum is important for diplomatic reasons also.

Canada, which is supplying a robotic arm for assembling the station, is now in the process of ratifying the memorandum of understanding which negotiators signed earlier this month. Japan, which will supply a laboratory module for the station, is also ready to proceed.

The European Space Agency, which will supply a second laboratory module, is negotiating its final agreement of participation. If NASA were forced to cancel or postpone the program due to budgetary reasons, it would discourage these partners and seriously embarrass the United States.

Stofan considers the space station to be not only the keystone of NASA's own space planning but also the leaven of future international cooperation in space. While NASA has had international participation in various projects before, this is the first megaprogram that depends critically on such cooperation.

Stofan explained: ``The working relationships that will come out of space station ... [will] set the tone of how we will cooperate in the future. ... I think this is going to be the model for the next thing. If it's going to be the moon or Mars, then this will say `OK ... now we know how to do a massive big thing really together.''

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