The space station--an orbiting laboratory that supporters claim represents the future of America's space exploration--is again in danger of being killed, this time by the godfather of the program who has spent years persuading Congress to keep it alive.
The space station's fate hinges on a shrinking National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget, a wariness about Russia's recent involvement in the program and wavering support by crucial members of Congress--in particular Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), the influential chairman of the science committee.
Long a powerful champion of the station, Brown now says he will reluctantly recommend pulling the plug if NASA's overall budget is slashed again next year or it appears the costly mission is raiding other NASA projects. President Clinton has requested $14.3 billion for NASA next year, $2.1 billion of that for the space station.
"I have been a staunch supporter of human space flight for a helluva long time," Brown said. But continued decreases in NASA budgets "would be tantamount to a death sentence anyway, and we might as well face it," he said.
Officials close to the project agree the space station hasn't a hope of survival without Brown's support.
"He goes against it, it's dead," said Tim Kyger, an aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, (R-Huntington Beach), a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where support for the station is shaky. "Last year the space station was in the intensive-care unit, this year it's on the operating table and we're trying to restart the heart."
The demise of NASA's illustrious orbiting laboratory would mean another blow to a California economy already reeling from defense cuts. Among the hardest hit would be McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co. in Huntington Beach, whose 3,000-member space-station team was cut in half after budget reductions last year.
First announced by then-President Reagan in 1984, the space station became the most ambitious project since the development of the space shuttle. Two of its prime contractors--McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach and the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International in Canoga Park--together hold space station contracts worth more than $6 billion.
But the station has been dogged by redesigns and setbacks. With federal money tight in recent years, critics began to question the wisdom of keeping alive a space program that, after 10 years and $12 billion in spending, had yet to produce a substantial piece of hardware.
The House approved further spending for the space station by a single vote last year. Then in December, a deal to bring Russia into the project gave the troubled program a political boost. The White House regards it as much a space mission as a foreign policy device to help a struggling democracy.
But in light of Russia's economic and political chaos, some members of Congress are having second thoughts about the extent of that country's involvement.
During a fact-finding mission in the former Soviet Union last fall, Brown said he saw a launch site so substandard that a major investment would be required to bring it into compliance. He concluded the United States would be better off if Russia's partnership were limited.
"For the last year I have warned . . . that the arrangement that made us dependent on the Russians would be dangerous," he said.
NASA officials are working hard to persuade Congress that Russian participation is not only wise, but also scientifically profitable.
"Space is absolutely woven into the fabric of life in Russia--there is no way they will walk away from this," said NASA spokesman Mark Hess. "Russian participation is allowing us to get it built sooner and start getting the scientific return faster."
Brown said he will know in about a week whether House Appropriations subcommittee chairmen intend to make sufficient money available to NASA. Even then, however, a long budget battle lies ahead before a final figure is approved, and the future of the space station will not be determined for a couple of months, he said.