IN spite of their domestic money woes, the international space station partners are sustaining their joint commitment. Europe's reluctance to say whether or not it will hold up its end of the deal had been a major uncertainty. Now, after a decade of indecision, the 14 member nations of the European Space Agency (ESA) have agreed to fund their share of the work for a total of $3.9 billion between 1996 and 2004.
That's good news for an endeavor United States presidential science adviser John Gibbons calls "the largest civilian non-war international project" going.
The space station involves much more than sophisticated hardware and astronaut virtuosity. It's a test bed where nations can learn to work together on big science and technology projects that none can afford individually but from which all will benefit. That's why French technology minister Francois Fillon told the recent ESA council meeting that Europe had to join "this joint apprenticeship regardless of any legitimate queries about the station's purely scientific value."
In fact, the station can't be justified in scientific terms alone. Critics have traditionally fought it on the ground that its high cost would drain funds from truly valuable space science programs.
That concern once was well founded. However, the station's scope and costs have been sharply scaled back to reasonable levels. The project now must work to a fixed budget. Russian participation has brought significant cost savings to the other partners. This has encouraged some former critics such as Dr. Gibbons and Planetary Society president Carl Sagan to change their views and support the project as a sensible next step in developing human space flight.
Europe's pledge of support does not end space station controversy on that continent. There will be crunch times ahead when ESA members have to fork over real money. However, they now are joined in a legally binding agreement to make a good faith effort to redeem their pledges.
The controversy will continue in the United States also. Yet critics are losing ground in Congress as the value of the international partnership sinks in. The House of Representatives has passed legislation that authorizes $13 billion to fund construction of the station to completion in 2002. If this survives the current budget battle and becomes law, it will be an important signal of US commitment even though actual funds would still be appropriated annually.
As for the other partners, Russia so far is maintaining its contribution - mainly in terms of hardware and experience and with the help of American purchases of equipment. Canada is struggling to find money for the manipulator arm it promises to supply. Japan has never wavered. If the partners can carry this project to fruition, the world will have a valuable model of how nations can work together to tackle pressing global problems right here on earth.