LIKE it or not, here comes the space station.
Space station Freedom survived congressional critics' latest effort to kill it, partly because it provides 75,000 jobs in 37 states. What may be equally important, the program's foreign partners see it as the "next logical step" in international cooperation, to quote German astronaut Ernest W. Messerschmid.
At a time when such cooperation has become a strategic necessity for the United States, the country's ability to keep its space station commitments is a test of its sincerity.
Vice President Dan Quayle told the recent World Space Congress, at which Dr. Messerschmid spoke, that "the United States hopes ... some of our work will inspire other nations to join us as partners."
But, after several downsizings, any more unilateral tinkering with the station - let alone its cancellation - would sour that prospect.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator Daniel S. Goldin is sensitive to this situation. He has made it clear that a current in-house review of how to cut management, transportation, and other costs of the program will not involve station redesign or changes in international commitments.
The twist Messerschmid gave NASA's well-worn description of its orbital dream house emphasizes an important fact. Space station Freedom is not an American domestic project with a few foreign guests. It is a truly international venture that depends heavily on the contributions of the foreign partners - especially those of the 13-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan. ESA and Japan are each supplying a billion-dollar laboratory module. Freedom will have three such modules, plus a module for living q uarters.
These commitments are substantial. NASA has the lion's share of the cost, hardware, and overall program responsibility. But ESA and Japan are devoting a bigger share of their space budgets to Freedom.
For example, space-station work claims a third of the $2.108 billion budget Japan's National Space Development Agency has requested for 1993. An equally substantial part of ESA's 1993 budget will likely be committed to the space station. ESA member ministers are expected to consider a major revamping of their space program when they meet in Granada Nov. 9.
For NASA, however, Freedom funds will be only 15 percent of the $14 billion fiscal 1993 budget Congress seems likely to give the agency.
The House and Senate agreed to give $2.1 billion for the station. This is less than the $2.25 billion NASA wanted. The shortfall could delay initial station construction several months, according to NASA program director Richard H. Kohrs.
Station partners could live with that delay. However, they also are exploring cooperation with Russia to reduce their dependence on the United States for manned spaceflight experience. And Germany and Japan have just formed a bilateral partnership in which they hope to work with Russia on development of their own manned spacecraft.
Meanwhile, both NASA and ESA also are exploring how Russia might help in the space station Freedom effort.
ESA has a study contract with the semi-independent NPO Energia company. Romano Barbera, director of ESA's Columbus (space station) Program office told a World Space Congress meeting he is looking for help in developing ESA's Columbus laboratory module for the Freedom station. He added that he hopes to find equipment "the Russians could supply to ESA at competitive costs."
One piece of equipment NASA itself is interested in is NPO Energia's Soyuz-TM spacecraft. That's the ship that ferries cosmonauts between Earth and the Russian Mir space station. The ship remains docked with Mir for months at a time. This provides the crew with a ready escape to Earth in an emergency.
NASA needs that kind of lifeboat for Freedom, because the shuttle is really only the astronauts' ferry. So it too has a study contract with NPO Energia. Mr. Kohrs told the symposium he thought the Soyuz-TM could reduce US costs by serving as a lifeboat "until we build a permanent assured crew return vehicle." He added that use of Soyuz also offers "an opportunity to achieve permanently manned capability probably by the end of 1997 as opposed to, say, 1999 or the year 2000."
Kohrs noted that the study is exploring the possibility that a Freedom laboratory module might be attached to Mir. Also, Mir modules already built and in storage might be attached to Freedom. However, he stressed that, at this stage, "There's been no commitment, it's just exploratory."
Meanwhile, critics in Europe, the United States, and even in Russia continue to challenge Freedom as hogging research funds while being scientifically unimportant. It has been downsized to a point where some of its originally planned capabilities have been dropped.
The last round of congressional budget cutting would eliminate the centrifuge in which biologists had hoped to do experiments under various strengths of simulated gravity.
Freedom's chief scientist, Robert W. Phillips, says that critics who want to kill the Freedom project miss the point. "Too many scientists have a fallacious impression that, if the space station does go away, there'll be more money for their projects," he says, "That's not necessarily true."
Explaining his perspective on Freedom in an interview, he pointed out that shuttle flights, such as Endeavor's space-lab mission that ended Sept. 20, "have just scratched the surface of what we can do" in the materials and biological sciences. He noted that scientists need to do repetitive experiments, which a space station would allow, so that their work has statistical significance. They need to do follow-up experiments to proceed from step one to step two, and so on.
"The plant people can't wait to do a seed-to-seed experiment," he said. "You can't do that in a week." He added that animal scientists would like to do a life-cycle experiment with rodents. That also is something "you can't do in a week."
Dr. Phillips explained that scientists have scarcely begun to learn how familiar phenomena change under weightless conditions. A space station at last allows scientists to control the one factor they cannot control on Earth - gravity. "Every organism I know has been changed in space," he said.
That also holds true for processes involved in forming materials under conditions where separation in a mixture is no longer based on density. Crystal growers, he said, are "tremendously excited" about the prospect of being able to "form compounds and complexes that are impossible" to form on Earth.