ONCE again, the United States is playing a dangerous game with its manned-spaceflight effort. It's called budget stretchout. To play this game, Congress cuts a program's annual budget below the originally planned amount needed to stick with the program's authorized design and schedule. But it doesn't cut the budget enough to kill the program outright.
That's the kind of false economy that helped inflate the cost of the space shuttle and led to technical compromises that a presidential commission called a factor in the Challenger disaster. Now Congress is threatening to do the same thing to the space station.
President Bush wants $13.274 billion for the NASA fiscal 1990 budget. That includes $2.2 billion for space station Freedom. It's a steep rise from Freedom's $900 million for 1989. But it is in line with the scheduled rise in annual funding that the program's congressionally approved plan calls for.
Now there is pressure in Congress to renege on that funding schedule. A Senate resolution calls for a $1.3 billion cut in general science and space. A substantial part of that would come out of the Freedom allocation. This has prompted nine congressmen to send a letter to the House Budget Committee, warning that ``this year is a crucial year in the development of the station and a year when the funding must increase to keep the program on track.'' It adds, ``A cut of this magnitude may not `kill' the space station, but it would so handicap its development that cancellation becomes a real option.''
While outright cancellation seems unlikely, Congress may well trim several hundred million from Freedom's 1990 funds. NASA could absorb such a cut and continue the Freedom program. But the stretchout game would begin.
Here's what's involved. In seeking original approval for any major program, NASA and its contractors plan the hardware and mission design in great detail - right down to nuts and bolts. They also plan a detailed development and funding schedule. Once this is authorized, they proceed along that course. When Congress cuts the program's budget below its scheduled level for a given year, NASA and its contractors have to go through the whole costly planning process over again. They come up with a revised design and schedule that may itself have to be redone if there are further budget stretchouts.
The stretchout game forces NASA to spend much of a program's funds on planning and replanning. The short-term budget savings are illusory. They only delay the program and inflate its cost. They may also lead to unwise design compromises, as they did with the shuttle.
This time, there's more at stake than just a NASA program. Station Freedom is a true international endeavor - with Canada, Japan, and the European Space Community acting as United States partners.
Space activity is entering an era when virtually all major endeavors will require international partnerships, because of their scope and cost. The Freedom program is a trial run at developing a blueprint of how to carry out truly international space projects.
If Freedom is substantially delayed and replanned - let alone canceled - the name of the United States will be mud in the international space community. The country's erstwhile partners would regroup and carry on without it. They are no longer dependent on the United States to make their own mark in space.
Congress should refrain from tinkering with the Freedom program. For once, the US should stick with a program plan and bring it in on time and within its originally authorized cost.