THE battle in Congress last week over the cost of the redesigned space station Freedom is actually a battle over the kind of space program and space capability the US will have in the 21st century. Fortunately, the House on Friday agreed to sustain Freedom's budget for another year. The General Accounting Office said NASA underestimated by $10 billion the cost of deploying the space station in the 1990s. NASA's figure is $30 billion; the GAO's figure is $40 billion.
Space policy cognoscenti say the dispute was more a matter of how accounting is done, and that the GAO's argument is a political tool for those in Congress who want the space station project killed and NASA's budget scaled back further. Their argument was bolstered by the last year's attacks on design flaws in the original space station.
The current station has been redesigned and scaled back. Some argue the more simplified station, mainly a research station, is not worth the money spent on it. Yet this ignores the fact that the original station, with its exaggerated bells, whistles, and promises (manufacturing capability, serving as a docking post for interplanetary missions) would have been a budgetary nightmare. Performance of only one of the original eight missions may be a good thing, not a bad thing.
The investment in the space station can't be evaluated simply by examining a ledger. The scaled-back station does something its detractors fail to note: It enables the US to make progress in space exploration. This is a modest, sober plan - not the fiscally fanciful moon base and Mars mission Dan Quayle promotes. Space technology provides spin-offs useful on earth.
Contrary to those who say space program dollars wind up on the moon or in an interstellar black hole, the money spent on the space station supports the crucial scientific infrastructure of the US. At a time when spending on research and development is already low, funding for the long-term is needed.
NASA has weathered serious trials of late. It's performance has come under question - based on snafus like the faulty Hubble telescope. Yet the agency has also proven capable of self-correction.