NASA's Budget Gyros

COSMONAUT Sergei Krikalev's recent shuttle mission opened a new era of Russian-American space flight cooperation. Will the United States now be able to hold up its end?

Congress and the White House budget office have a tendency to start a space project one year and then starve it, redesign it, or drop it prematurely in later years.

That's no way to uphold an international partnership, as the often burned European Space Agency countries and Canada and Japan keep pointing out. Unilateral US scalebacks of the space station have given them serious budget problems. Such American highhandedness could blight the budding Russian-American partnership. Russia's ability to fund its space program is shaky enough without having to cope with American uncertainty.

NASA's $14.3 billion fiscal 1995 budget request is historic. For the first time, it contains a line item for ``Russian Cooperation,'' funded at $150 million. But for the first time in 21 years the agency has less budget authorization than it had the year before. The cut includes trims of $49 million from the space shuttle budget and $109 million from the space station.

Meanwhile, key members of Congress have warned that the final budget will likely be a flat $14 billion, $500 million less than NASA has this fiscal year. A cut that large in an already austere budget would probably hurt space science. Long-planned projects, such as the international Cassini mission to study Saturn, are vulnerable.

Also, further cuts in the shuttle budget could curtail the plan to fly up to 10 missions to the Russian Mir space station.

This injects needless uncertainty into the new Russian-American partnership.

The budgetary instability comes partly from the often-cited lack of a national consensus on what the US should do in space. It also comes from the way that Congress deals with the budgets of independent agencies such as NASA. It lumps them in with such agencies as those dealing with veterans' affairs or housing and urban renewal. The relevant committees then have to divide up a prescribed amount of money among these disparate agencies.

The federal budget has to set national priorities. But NASA and other technical agencies, which have specific missions, should not have to compete directly with veterans' affairs, housing, or other Cabinet agencies whose activities are more vulnerable to shifting political ideologies. Space activities will still compete with social programs at a broader budgetary level; but once overall allocations are made, specialized agencies should have their own pot of money. Then Congress can weigh the relative priorities of these agencies more effectively.

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