A CTING under presidential orders, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is redesigning what it calls "the international space station Freedom."
But more than NASA's orbital dream house is at stake. The future of manned spaceflight generally is involved.
The station defines what the scope of the United States manned-spaceflight program will be, explains Arnold Aldrich, NASA associate administrator for space-systems development. He says: "It's inevitable that we'll have a forward-looking space program ... and that a space station will play a key role." But he adds, "There's going to be a lot of [budgetary] pushes and pulls along the way."
The administration has told NASA to come up with three alternative designs that would cost, respectively, $5 billion, $7 billion, and $9 billion over the next five years. NASA is to present these options to President Clinton on June 7.
The defeat of Mr. Clinton's stimulus package may have added to that pulling and pushing. The package contained $445 million in supplemental money for research in the current fiscal year, a loss that will toughen competition for funds in the fiscal 1994 budget. And NASA's $15.3 billion requested budget stands out as a likely target.
Overall, the NASA budget represents a $1 billion increase over fiscal 1993. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin has asked Congress to consider this in a five-year perspective. After 1994, he says the agency will seek only small budget increases to compensate for inflation. However, Rep. Ralph Hall (D) of Texas, chairman of the House space subcommittee, told Mr. Goldin during a hearing last week that "a billion-dollar increase is not terribly likely."
Equally troubling for Congress: The space station is represented in the budget by a $2.3 billion place-holder item for unspecified costs of the redesigned station, as well as other so-called new technology initiatives. NASA can't pinpoint what it wants the money for until it completes the station-redesign study in June.
Congress does not like the blank-check flavor of the space-station item, as several subcommittee members made clear during last week's hearing.
Asked what NASA would do if it does not get its billion-dollar boost, Goldin told the subcommittee: "We're going to recommend cancellation of programs." He explained that NASA has already cut $15 billion from its former five-year budget plan.
Now, he said, "I don't see where there's room for cutting and squeezing." The space station seems particularly vulnerable. Goldin explained that if Congress does not fully fund the new, lower-cost station that emerges from the redesign study, he doubted that the station program could survive. "It's right on the edge," he said.
Past redesigns forced by congressional budget-cutting have already deprived the space station of many of its originally intended capabilities. Yet it still was too expensive. Its expected future costs seemed out of control. They threatened to swallow much of NASA's entire budget. John Gibbons, a presidential science adviser, has said, "We have to downscale the out-year costs of the space station in order to make it possible for NASA to do the many things that it's charged to do."
NASA officials make no secret of their lukewarm attitude toward the redesign. It could leave them with a far-less-capable station than they would like. The cheapest option could be just a stripped-down facility that astronauts would use during space-shuttle visits.
Goldin told the House subcommittee that he "accepted those [White House] instructions." But, he added, "I didn't initiate the exercise."
Thus, right now, the US has a manned-spaceflight program whose future is undefined.
The foreign space-station partners - Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency - are wary of this uncertainty. Their own manned-flight programs are closely tied to the station. Europe, particularly, is considering cutting back on its commitment. Although two German astronauts are now working on board the shuttle Columbia, Europe is working with the Russians to place European astronauts on the Russian Mir space station as an alternative route to orbit.
Meanwhile, a team of Russian experts has been invited to Washington to consult on space station Freedom's redesign. They will offer whatever advice and hardware may be useful. NASA officials see this move as another small step in the evolving cooperation between the two country's financially squeezed space programs.
Goldin insists: "NASA has not given up on solar [system] exploration ... it remains part of our vision."
"We have not given up on going to the moon," either, he adds. "What we have done is say this is not the time to do it."
However, long-duration space-station missions would provide the knowledge of weightlessness that is needed for manned missions to other planets.
When the time for such exploration does come, Goldin says the adventure will be international. And he expects the US and Russia to play leading roles.