Doubts Cloud Space Station

SPACE station Freedom is in deep trouble. It's not just that Congress cut its fiscal 1991 requested budget by a whopping $551 million and ordered a review of the program. It's not just that the Bush administration already is rethinking the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) orbiting dream house. And it's not just that many space scientists remain openly skeptical of what they consider a technically flawed program that hogs NASA's research funds.

What perhaps is most significant is the disaffection of prominent manned spaceflight buffs. Their concerns reinforce those of other critics. They give ample reason to rethink a station plan about which there is such serious doubt.

NASA's own space-station team now is in the midst of a design review to be finished by the year's end. But it is the cold eye of outside appraisal that may be most influential in determining the program's future. The administration's Advisory Committee on the Future of the US Space Program is thoroughly reviewing the program's goals. As the centerpiece of current NASA planning, space station Freedom is at the focus of this review.

Some members of the committee reportedly are quite skeptical of the station design. And some of the most cogent criticism yet made public has come from Thomas Paine. Dr. Paine served as NASA administrator when astronauts first stepped on to the moon and later chaired the 1986 National Commission on Space. He has enthusiastically promoted the commission's vision of human expansion, first to the moon and then to Mars. Yet he expressed grave concern about the space station in a September letter to the chairman of the administration's review committee, Norman Augustine, chairman and chief executive officer of Martin Marietta.

Paine noted that ``the space-station project faces mounting technical problems, soaring costs, unrealistic dependence on regular shuttle flights, and declining public support.'' He also warned that the station is getting in the way of the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) to establish moon bases and explore Mars. ``The current station program is no longer endorsed by most scientists and is delaying, not advancing, the President's SEI goals,'' he wrote.

Paine joined a number of other critics in suggesting it may be wise to redesign the station so that its components can be orbited by heavy-lift unmanned rockets rather than relying on dozens of shuttle missions. This, he said, ``would offer major opportunities for simplification, cost savings, increased safety ....'' It would also delay deployment until the end of the decade.

The space-station program seems likely to be in for severe criticism in the committee report, which is due Dec. 15. The Bush administration has already signaled such a possibility. Speaking in his capacity as chairman of the National Space Council, Vice President Dan Quayle has told NASA employees: ``This is a serious review. Some of the recommendations may call for changes in how we are organized and how we do business. There's nothing wrong with change ... with challenging the status quo.''

The station program is still alive with a 1991 budget of $1.9 billion, much less than requested. It is likely to remain alive but with substantial redesigning for a simpler system. The challenge lies in coming up with a truly sensible program that NASA's international partners - Canada, Europe, and Japan - will find acceptable in spite of the cost, inconvenience, and delay this will involve.

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