Once, the name NASA was synonymous with success. The agency's pioneering spacecraft landed men on the moon, searched for life in the red Martian soil, and even ventured beyond the solar system. But in trying to make the next giant leap for mankind, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration has stumbled badly. Since 1984, it has wrapped its future around a controversial proposal to put a station in space, where astronauts would fashion new materials, probe the mysteries of human biology, and launch a wave of manned missions to the moon and Mars.
Trouble is, the space station is bound to cost more than planned, and few experts believe that it will perform as advertised. Those are two of the reasons a House Appropriations subcommittee delivered a potentially fatal blow to the project on May 15 by voting to eliminate its $2 billion 1992 budget. While some of the money still could be restored, the vote has brought to the fore a once-unthinkable question: Without its flagship project, what happens to NASA?
Backers of the space station believe that NASA, already tarnished by the Challenger explosion, cost overruns, and quality-control problems, will fall on even harder times. The death of the space station would be "a disaster for our civilian space program," says Robert F. Thompson, vice-president and general manager of McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co.'s Space Station Div. Adds Representative Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), the ranking Republican on the House Science, Space & Technology Committee: "Killing the space station would leave NASA with little to do in the manned space flight program except fly the space shuttle." That could reduce interest in space, he says, and lead to the shrinkage of NASA.
But others think the vote was the best thing for the troubled agency. "Some people say that it would be a disaster if we don't build the station," says Bruce C. Murray, professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and former director of the NASA/Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "I think it would be a disaster if we do."
For too long, critics charge, the orbiting behemoth has beaten back worthy competitors for NASA's attention and resources. The station already has cost $4.6 billion, and the final price tag, once pegged at $8 billion, has soared to more than $100 billion by one estimate. As a result, other projects, such as unmanned efforts to bring back pieces of comets or samples of Martian dirt, never got off the drawing board. "The battlefield is strewn with corpses of science missions that were victims of the costs of feeding first the shuttle and then the space station," says James Van Allen, the University of Iowa physicist who discovered the radiation belts that circle the earth.
CASH HOG. The growing appetite of the space station looms even larger this year. The House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA also parcels out money to the Veterans Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Housing & Urban Development Dept. The budget adopted by Congress provides $63.5 billion for such programs, or $1.2 billion less than the Bush Administration sought. That presents a dilemma. If the space station receives the $2.2 billion NASA requested, many of the space agency's projects, such as a new rocket that could power manned missions to Mars, would be cut back. But killing the station would give full funding to nearly everything else--from housing to Clean Air Act enforcement to NASA's efforts to monitor global warming. "We simply can no longer afford huge new projects," says subcommittee Chairman Bob Traxler (D-Mich.).
The sacrifices necessary to support the station are particularly galling to many scientists, who see it as downright useless. NASA has argued that the orbiting outpost would be a hotbed of research. But the National Academy of Sciences concluded in a Mar. 15 report that the station would either be ill-equipped or unable to "meet the basic research requirements for the two principal scientific disciplines for which it was intended"--the study of life sciences and of ways to make materials in low gravity. On May 8, the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, which represents virtually every field of science, called the station's contribution to science "greatly overstated." Vice-President Dan Quayle, chairman of the National Space Council, offers only a mild defense. He calls the project "necessary to the reaffirmation of the leadership in space of the U. S."
Critics say even that may be an exaggeration. While NASA and Congress are just starting to contemplate life without the space station, researchers have plenty of suggestions for the agency's new agenda. It could fly more missions to distant planets, launch more satellites to monitor the environment, send up small, unmanned orbiters to do experiments on materials in low gravity, and start building the big rockets that could eventually carry explorers to other planets. It could learn how the human body reacts to months of weightlessness--vital information for space travel--by piggybacking on the Soviet space station. Or it could send up modern versions of Skylab, an orbiting laboratory used in the 1970s that housed astronauts for weeks.
One downside of killing the project is angering the Europeans, Canadians, and Japanese, who have started to build space station modules. "But if we are willing to leave them very unhappy, we could cobble together a reasonable manned program without the space station," says space expert John E. Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.
'TOUGH FIGHT.' The House panel's vote isn't the final say. NASA and the Administration are hoping for strong support from the powerful congressional delegations of Texas, where the Johnson Space Center would be hit hard if the space station dies, and California, where many contractors are located. For example, McDonnell Douglas Space Systems, in Huntington Beach, stands to lose about $2.4 billion in revenues over the next five years. The station "is too vital to the country" to kill, declares NASA Deputy Administrator James R. Thompson Jr.
But restoring funding will "be a tough fight," concedes a top White House official. Supporters of other NASA projects, along with environmentalists and housing advocates, all are clamoring for the space station's slice of the budget pie. As a result, "I'm not sure the White House will really go all out for this," the official adds. If the project isn't revived, NASA is in for wrenching changes. But that could give it a golden opportunity to rethink its basic mission--and concentrate on rebuilding its image.