NASA's controversial Space Station Freedom passed its first major test in the Senate Wednesday, as an appropriations subcommittee unanimously voted to spend the full $2 billion for the project requested by the Bush Administration.
The news was received warmly by officials of an Orange County aerospace giant that holds space station contracts worth at least $3.4 billion.
"We need to get on with the space station," said Thomas E. Williams, a spokesman for McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co. of Huntington Beach. "This is a good, clear signal of our government's support for a long-term program."
Despite strong opposition from some scientists, who contend that the proposed orbiting platform in space has been so pared down that it can no longer fulfill its scientific mission, members of the Senate panel that oversees the NASA budget said it is time to move forward with the manned space project.
"I've grown weary with all the debate," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), a subcommittee member. "I see (the space station) as a logical effort for the world's greatest nation to move out into the frontier of space, and I'm strongly for it."
But at least one senator was not fully persuaded, despite his affirmative vote. "It has not as yet passed what I call the excitement test," Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) said.
The comments came as the appropriations subcommittee for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and independent federal agencies approved by voice vote an $81-billion spending bill for the 1992 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
The full Appropriations Committee is expected to ratify the decision later this week. The measure will be considered later this summer on the Senate floor, where space station opponents are promising to renew their fight to eliminate the program.
NASA, which already has spent about $5 billion on space station development, estimates that it will need another $25 billion through the end of the decade to get the station in orbit and ready to house a four-person crew. The General Accounting Office, however, has pegged station costs through the year 2000 at $40 billion, $10 billion more than the NASA estimate.
The spending bill approved Wednesday includes $14.3 billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The figure is $1.5 billion less than requested by the Bush Administration, but $437 million, or 3%, more than both the current NASA budget and the amount set aside for the space agency by the House of Representatives.
In June, after hours of contentious debate, the House rescued the space station when it took the unusual step of reversing its own appropriations committee, which had voted to cut all funding for the beleaguered program. By a 240-173 vote, the representatives approved a spending bill that would set aside $1.9 billion for the space station, largely by significantly cutting other NASA science programs.
The Senate measure also relies on cuts in other NASA programs to pay for the space station, but to a lesser extent than the House bill. One major NASA casualty would be the CRAF space probe program, designed to study a comet from close range.
The Senate bill would increase funds for veterans medical programs but cut money for new VA construction projects, largely, congressional aides said, because of chronic cost overrun problems.
In addition, the Senate bill would cut the President's request for HUD funding by $350 million, to $23.9 billion, or $342 million less than approved by the House.
Proposed by President Reagan in 1984, Space Station Freedom is intended to serve as an orbiting laboratory for life science and microgravity research and a jumping-off point for a return to the moon and a possible mission to Mars.
But in recent months, members of the scientific community have complained that a redesign of the station ordered last year by congressional appropriators to cut costs has reduced its scientific capabilities to the point that it is no longer worth launching.
In a letter to key senators sent earlier this week, the presidents of 14 scientific societies said, "We are particularly concerned that the excessive cost of the proposed space station threatens the vitality not only of NASA's science and technology programs, but those of other independent agencies. . . ."
The complaint was dismissed Wednesday by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the HUD, VA and independent agencies subcommittee.
"There are those who say the space station is going to cannibalize other space science activities," she said. "That is not true."
Mikulski said the Senate legislation provides for a 10% increase for space science programs over 1991 spending, while space station funds would increase by 6%. In addition, she said, the budget for the National Science Foundation would rise 14% over 1991 spending.
Williams, the McDonnell Douglas spokesman, said he believes that the criticism from the scientific community reflects a longstanding opposition by some scientists to any manned space programs, and a mistaken assumption that cutting space station funds will make more money available for other scientific endeavors.
". . . It's not going to go into their programs," Williams said. Instead, Congress is likely to use the funds for other domestic programs, he said.