WHILE Discovery's Russian/American crew solved problems in space this week, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was handed a daunting challenge right here on Earth: the 1995 Clinton budget.
For the first time in 21 years, NASA would take a ``pay cut.'' The budget proposed for fiscal 1995, which starts in October, would shave $260 million off the $14.55 billion the agency has for the current fiscal year.
The agency would have $49 million less to pay for next year's planned eight shuttle missions, including the first docking with the Russian Mir space station. Furthermore, key members of Congress have already put NASA on notice that its budget is likely to be cut even more.
President Clinton hailed Discovery's current mission ``the first step in what will become the norm of global cooperation in space'' when he visited the Mission Control Center outside Houston on Monday.
But if NASA is to hold up its end of this expanding international partnership, the squeeze on its overall budget means that other space activities face very lean funding.
At press time, Discovery's crew was preparing to return to the Kennedy Space Center today. Its mission generally has gone well, considering the disappointing performance of the Wake Shield high-vacuum manufacturing experiment. According to Mission Control, Astronaut Ronald Sega and Cosmonaut Sergie Krikalev, who are trained to handle the satellite, nevertheless made the most of the $13.5 million experiment.
The 3,700-pound satellite was to have trailed 46 miles behind Discovery for two days to grow ultrapure wafers of gallium arsenide. Uncertainties about the satellite's attitude-control system forced NASA to abandon that part of the experiment. Instead, astronauts dangled the satellite at the end of the shuttle's robot arm. It still grew the wafers, but they probably picked up impurities so close to the shuttle.
However, other experiments using the satellite - such as measuring electric fields near Discovery and studying the deposition of thin metal films under weightless conditions - were carried out.
Meanwhile, the mission's primary objective of conducting a dozen experiments in the commercial Spacehab laboratory has continued, as have a variety of physiological tests. Seen in this perspective, the mission has been largely successful in fulfilling many of its objectives.
Now NASA officials have a budget struggle ahead of them. Although the budget contains money for NASA's programs to extend the flight-duration capacity of an orbiter and develop a transport vehicle for commercial experiments and an advanced solid rocket, these programs are being wound down. Funding for the Spacelab laboratory carried in a shuttle cargo bay would be cut $19 million from its present $125 million. Even the space-station budget would take a $105 million cut from the $1.9 billion-per-year ceiling to which NASA has agreed.
However, the Mission to Planet Earth environmental-observing program would have its present $1.2 billion budget raised by $213 million. And, for the first time, there's a line item for ``Russian cooperation,'' to be funded at $150 million.
With all the cuts figured in, the Clinton budget requests $14.3 billion for NASA. However, as early as last October, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland and Rep. Louis Stokes (D) of Ohio, who chair the relevant appropriations committees, warned NASA in writing not to expect more than a flat $14 billion for fiscal 1995.
Since the new Russian partnership aimed at building the space station now has the highest priority, many observers believe that space-science funding will be starved. For example, William Smith, staff director for the House space subcommittee, even told a meeting of the American Astronomical Society last month that there's ``a direct conflict'' between space science and the space station.