SPACE station Freedom - the next steppingstone toward a manned presence on the moon and Mars - is under threat of extinction this week. The House of Representatives plans to vote today whether to strike entirely this year's $2 billion budget for the space station, bringing the program to a crashing halt.
The battle for votes has become intense, and, for a Bush administration enthusiastic about reaching the moon and Mars in coming decades, it is full of meaning for American leadership in the world.
"This is the most serious challenge to NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] in the history of the space program," says Howard McCurdy, a political scientist at American University who has written a book on the space station.
In a Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday, budget director Richard Darman called the threat to the space station "a misguided detour sign that would steer us away from America's historic, pioneering path." Mr. Darman has been a leading spokesman in the administration for a view that manned space exploration represents the best of American competence and spirit.
America's partners in the space station project - Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency - also expressed their chagrin on Capitol Hill this week, suggesting that lack of American dependability on this project will affect cooperation on other technological ventures as well.
On the surface, the space station ran up against the unforgiving limits of the new budget arithmetic.
But the tough budget tradeoffs may not be the whole story.
"I really think there's an underlying dissatisfaction with the space station and its cost," says Dr. McCurdy. "They would much rather see NASA spend the money in some other way," that requires less human presence in space.
The battle is not over. The House takes a floor vote today on an amendment to restore 95 percent of space station funding. A very close vote is anticipated. Both sides have been lobbying hard.
If the space station loses in the House, it is expected to fare better in the Senate. A compromise would then be likely.
The NASA budget, including $2 billion for the space station, was approved by Congress earlier this year. But when a total dollar figure was handed to the Veterans, HUD, and Independent Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, the members parceled it out differently.
The subcommittee members had no desire to cut the space station, chairman Bob Traxler (D) of Michigan has explained, but needed money for veterans' medical benefits, Community Development Block Grants, and wastewater treatment plants. On Monday, the full Appropriations Committee approved deletion of the space station funds. The plan leaves only $100 million for studying alternatives to the space station.
This challenge to the space station follows a historical pattern, notes McCurdy. The same subcommittee has dropped major NASA programs over the decades, cuts that sometimes passed the full House but never this serious before," he adds.
"If the space station goes, then the concept of permanent manned presence in space goes," says Adam L. Gruen, project director of the Space Station History Project.
Without the space station, NASA may be forced to adopt a more prosaic view: "The only one good reason to have man in space is to fix machinery" and other caretaking work, says Gruen.
The space station has lost political clout for a couple of reasons. One is that space scientists often argue strongly against manned exploration as a massive drain on resources that might go to unmanned projects that bring in more data at far less cost.
Gruen says that history offers no support for this view that manned space projects cut into space science spending.
NASA has also slimmed down the functions of the space station, at the request of House budget makers, and in the process narrowed its constituency, notes McCurdy. The current space station design allows only for micro-gravity experiments and life sciences research. It will have to be adapted later into a way station to the moon and Mars.