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NASA Puts Chances of Space Station Ever Reaching Orbit at About 50-50 : Exploration: Congress ordered spending cuts of $6 billion because of deficit. Aerospace firms scramble to keep pieces of the shrinking pie.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was to have been NASA’s crowning achievement at the end of this century--a gateway not only to Mars and beyond but to the next millennium.

The Space Station Freedom--an orbiting Erector Set of “habitation modules” and shimmering solar panels suspended from a giant metal truss--was designed as a launching pad for interplanetary exploration, a pioneering laboratory for studying the effects of space on men and materials and a crucible for international scientific cooperation.

It was also a boon to aerospace contractors, including McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co. of Huntington Beach, Calif., and Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne Division in Canoga Park, Calif., which together hold space station contracts worth nearly $6 billion.

But last fall, facing an unprecedented budget deficit, Congress put the brakes on the program, ordering the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to cut its spending on the station by about $6 billion over the next six years. Seven weeks later, an independent advisory committee recommended that NASA simplify and redesign the space station.

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As NASA surveys the damage, the chances that Space Station Freedom ever will reach orbit--once a sure bet--are now just “better than 50-50,” the agency’s top officials say. Even if Freedom does fly, the program will be delayed and dramatically scaled back.

The cutbacks pose political difficulties as well. If the launching of the space station is delayed long enough, the White House will lose interest, a congressional strategist fears. “And, if it loses downtown (at the White House), “it’s gonzo on Capitol Hill,” he said.

As NASA works against a congressionally imposed late-January deadline to design a pared-down station, contractors and NASA research centers are scrambling to hold on to pieces of a much smaller pie. “The contractors are nervous,” a Capitol Hill aide said, “especially the ones who are not in great (financial) shape.”

The process is of particular concern to Southern California. McDonnell Douglas holds a $4-billion contract to build the station’s truss structure and its navigation, communications, propulsion and other key systems. Rocketdyne’s $1.8-billon contract covers construction of four sets of giant solar panels and the rest of the station’s 75,000-watt power system.

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Meanwhile, Boeing Defense & Space Group in Huntsville, Ala., is working under a $1.6-billion contract to fabricate the station’s living and laboratory modules, life-support systems and environmental controls. And General Electric Co.'s Astro-Space Division in Valley Forge, Pa., has a $900-million contract to build station equipment.

“They’re all fighting,” said Jeffrey Manber, executive director of the Space Foundation, a space policy think-tank. “People perceive correctly that (the station design) is open again, so everyone is running in to try to present their ideas on how to lead the program.” Boeing, for example, reportedly has proposed a redesign that would eliminate the truss structure to be built by McDonnell Douglas, which insists the project requires only incremental changes that would preserve the station’s basic design.

At the same time, Manber added, contractors are trying to understand what NASA wants, and “the problem is, NASA doesn’t know. It’s as if (NASA officials) went into the showroom and picked out the Ferrari, and Dad said no,” he said. “But NASA keeps looking at the Ferrari.”

The idea of a manned station in space dates at least to 1869, when Boston-born author and Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale described a 60-meter “Brick Moon” that would carry a crew of 37 and aid in the navigation of ships at sea.

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The modern space station sprang from the mind of German scientist Wernher von Braun, who built rockets for the Nazis, went to work for the United States after World War II and eventually helped develop the Saturn rocket, which landed Americans on the moon.

It was not until January, 1984, that President Ronald Reagan formally committed the nation to the goal of developing a permanently manned space station. (A temporary space laboratory, Skylab, was launched in 1973. The Soviet Union put its station in orbit in 1986.)

The first elements of the permanent station were to be launched on the space shuttle in early 1995, and, as recently as two years ago, NASA vowed to have the station fully assembled, in orbit and permanently manned by 1996.

But that timetable has been slipping ever since. Earlier this year, before the latest congressional budget cuts, NASA projected that the station would not be completed before mid-1999. Now, even that estimate appears optimistic.

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A 1989 NASA publication asserted that Space Station Freedom would serve a “broad spectrum” of research disciplines, including life sciences, materials sciences, astrophysics, Earth sciences, planetary sciences and commercial applications.

In addition, the station was to serve as a jumping-off point for a new landing on the moon and the manned exploration of Mars and beyond. And it would promote international scientific cooperation through agreements with the governments of Japan and Canada and the 13-nation European Space Agency. Each would develop and build separate experimental modules and components that would fly on the station.

But prospects for early completion of the space station began to erode in the late 1980s, as the federal budget deficit began to mount. They crashed to Earth last fall, when Congress cut the space station budget for fiscal 1991 to $1.9 billion from $2.5 billion, eventually warning NASA that it could expect only about $15.6 billion for the station through 1996 instead of the $21.5 billion that the agency had expected.

Also, Congress told NASA to cut back its goals for the station, redesign the project and report back within 90 days. Go ahead and honor the nation’s international commitments, Congress said, and concentrate on materials-processing research, which can begin before the station is permanently manned.

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“I think we’re going to go ahead with the space station,” said Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), the new chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “But we’re going to be looking for ways to save money--and that may include (a mandate to) stop dreaming about when we’re going to set a date for a launch to Mars, and get real for a change.”

Nearly two months after Congress cut NASA’s space station budget, the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program released a report of its own. The committee, headed by Norman R. Augustine, a former undersecretary of the Army and current chief executive of Martin Marietta Corp., chided NASA for over reliance on the space shuttle. The Augustine group contended also that the agency should redesign and simplify the space station but said it should focus on life-sciences research, placing materials research second.

The conflicting mandates on how to scale back the station pose a tremendous challenge for NASA. William B. Lenoir, NASA associate administrator for the Office of Space Flight, said that the agency has “a lot of options on the table” and is “mixing and matching” and trying to put things back together. “We’re right in the middle of it,” he said.

Lenoir said chances are better than even that NASA engineers ultimately will be able to develop a station that meets both budget constraints and program goals. But he cautioned that “we’re not 100% sure . . . . At first cut, it appears to fit, (but) we have to go back and make sure there aren’t some ‘I forgots’ that are going to push it over” budget.

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So far, NASA officials have made only two firm decisions about the redesign work: The agency will shorten the living and laboratory modules to 22 feet from 44, to enable technicians to assemble them fully and “stuff” them with equipment before they are launched on the space shuttle. And NASA will abandon plans, at least temporarily, to attach scientific payloads to the outside surface of the station. Both plans will save time and money.

Beyond that, “it’s a lot of balls in the air,” Lenoir said.

Ultimately, the fate of Space Station Freedom rests with Congress. Officials say further cuts beyond those already projected would almost certainly scuttle the program, but they are unsure how Congress will vote.

But all sides agree that what is going on now is crucial. The redesign work under way at NASA represents the agency’s “last best hope for saving this program,” one Capitol Hill strategist warned. “They’ve got to do it right.”

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