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House OKs Space Station by 1 Vote : Science: Close 216-215 tally is a shock to backers of project. Stiff opposition is attributed to budget-cutting frenzy on Capitol Hill and 114 new lawmakers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the slimmest of margins, the House voted Wednesday to build a scaled-back space station, but the narrow victory was a shock for backers of the controversial project.

The 216-215 margin foreshadowed likely trouble for supporters of the program next week, when lawmakers are to vote once more on the $25-billion space outpost.

Lawmakers attributed the robust opposition to the budget-cutting frenzy on Capitol Hill and the arrival of more than 100 new representatives who had never before voted on the project.

“I thought that we’d have closer to a 20-vote margin,” said Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and one of the program’s strongest backers. “It is a very slim victory. It should be a warning signal.”

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Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), one of the leaders of the nearly successful effort to kill the program, said he considers the vote a victory. “This was not an endorsement of the space station,” Roemer said, adding that the vote represents “not just shock waves” but “thunderbolts and lightning flying” at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

House delegations from Alabama, Florida and Texas, where much of the space station work is concentrated, were nearly unanimous in their support of the program. But 18 of California’s 52 lawmakers--15 Democrats and three Republicans--voted to kill the program. The state’s aerospace industry, which employs more than 4,000 space station workers, has been battered in recent years by dramatic cuts in federal defense spending.

Orange County’s delegation all voted in favor of saving the program.

The space station’s photo-finish came as the House rejected an amendment sponsored by Roemer and Rep. Dick Zimmer (R-N.J.) that would have eliminated nearly all space station funding from legislation that sets multiyear spending limits for NASA.

The mood on the House floor turned electric as the automated vote tallying equipment reported the neck-and-neck progress of the 15-minute vote. Most of the chamber’s 435 members stood at their seats, cheering and applauding as their side pulled ahead.

Support for the station was bipartisan, as 104 Democrats and 112 Republicans joined to defeat the Roemer amendment. Sixty-one Republicans, 153 Democrats and the House’s lone independent voted for it.

The battle over the space station, one of the nation’s two premier science projects, will be joined again next week. The House is scheduled to consider a separate bill that provides a one-year NASA appropriation for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. With the razor-thin margin Wednesday, neither side was certain of victory.

Even if the House votes against 1994 funding for the space station, the project could be resurrected in the Senate, which has not taken any action on it so far this year.

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In a related controversy, congressional aides said that the unexpectedly close vote dramatically increases the chance that the House will vote today to kill the superconducting super collider, an $8-billion atom smasher in Texas. The super collider, the country’s other big science program, also has been the target of budget cutters. The House voted once before to kill the project but it was restored in the Senate.

Despite Roemer’s claim of victory over the space station, a resolute NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin stood on the steps of the Capitol after the vote and declared: “This was a win.”

Goldin was part of an intense lobbying effort by the Clinton Administration, which has endorsed the new, slimmed-down design. The administrator said that he made more than 100 phone calls to wavering lawmakers in the 36 hours before the vote.

Earlier Wednesday, Vice President Al Gore went to the Capitol to make a last-minute pitch to about two dozen representatives in private and on the House floor. One was Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), who said that he counts many space station workers among his constituents.

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But Beilenson voted against the project. “I don’t think it is a wise expenditure of taxes at this time,” he said.

Brown predicted that President Clinton will have to join the lobbying effort personally for the project to prevail next week.

The fate of the space station program is being watched carefully in Southern California, home to two of the program’s three prime contractors--McDonnell Douglas Aerospace in Huntington Beach and the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International in Canoga Park. The companies hold space station contracts worth more than $6 billion. Sixty other California companies employ more than 4,000 people on the project.

At McDonnell Douglas, spokesman Thomas E. Williams said of next week’s vote: “I think it’s going to be close but I do think it will survive.”

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Even as Clinton has praised the space station’s potential, he called for a major shake-up of NASA’s program management. Specifically, Clinton endorsed an expert panel’s call for a 30% reduction in space station managers employed by NASA and private contractors.

The panel also said NASA should designate a single prime contractor to oversee the project, instead of the three it now has under contract. “We are going to redesign NASA at the same time we redesign the space station,” Clinton said.

That effort could significantly affect the value of McDonnell Douglas’ space station work. The Times has learned that the Huntington Beach company already has presented a proposal to NASA under which it would assume the responsibility of a single prime contractor.

Under its current contract, McDonnell Douglas is responsible for building the aluminum spar, known as the “truss,” that will form the backbone of the space station. Pressurized cylinders in which astronauts will live and work will be attached to the spar, along with three sets of large solar arrays that will provide the station’s electric power.

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In addition, McDonnell Douglas is responsible for the space station’s navigation and propulsion systems, which are to be simplified under the Clinton plan. The truss--and much of McDonnell Douglas’ work--would have been eliminated under a more radical redesign proposal that Clinton rejected.

The space station’s one-vote reprieve Wednesday was in dramatic contrast to last year’s resounding victory when the House endorsed an earlier, more complex and more expensive design by a 237-181 margin. Lawmakers said that the focus last year of the presidential campaign on the federal budget deficit and the presence of 114 new members in the House caused the dramatic change.

In three hours of space station debate Wednesday, critics argued that even the pared-down laboratory, intended to provide a weightless platform for long-term biological and industrial research, is a luxury that the nation can ill afford in tough economic times.

And they said constant cost-cutting has hopelessly compromised the space station’s scientific mission and turned the project into a public works program for aerospace contractors.

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“We can’t afford to build the biggest pork barrel ever sent into space,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said.

But supporters evoked images of long-ago explorers and America’s frontier heritage. They said that the space station’s scientific mission is important but secondary to the need to maintain the United State’s preeminence as a space-faring nation.

“Without the space station, our aerospace industry will wither away and, for the first time in history, the American people will be left without a frontier,” said Rep. Jim Bacchus (D-Fla.), whose district includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) told his colleagues: “This is a vote on whether or not to continue a manned space program that has put America on the cutting edge of technology since its inception.”

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First announced in 1984 by then-President Ronald Reagan, the space station’s development cost originally was to have been $8 billion. The project was cut back several times, until NASA said it had a model that would cost a total of $31.3 billion to develop and build with a series of space shuttle missions. NASA later revised the cost estimate to more than $35 billion.

Faced with a burgeoning budget deficit, Clinton last February ordered NASA to develop plans to cut the cost of the space station program over the next five years from an estimated $14.4 billion to a maximum of $9 billion.

The cheapest NASA alternative failed to meet that goal, but Clinton decided to proceed anyway.


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