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Senate Gives Space Station Crucial Vote of Confidence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly rejected efforts to kill the space station, removing the final legislative hurdle of the year for the $17.4-billion project and providing more stability than it has had in a decade.

“The thing that our contractors and employees tell us we need more than anything else is stability,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Daniel S. Goldin said in an interview. “We now have it.”

Goldin said that the continuation of congressional support this year will let NASA prove that its management reforms can get the space station--plagued by delays and cost overruns--"on track, on budget and on schedule.”

Until this year, the project had had such lukewarm political support and such an erratic funding record that its design changed year by year and its stated mission was never made clear to the public.

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But Wednesday’s 64-36 margin of support in the Senate, as well as overwhelming approval last month in the House, reflected the increasing commitment to the station that has followed an agreement last year to bring Russia onto the program’s international team.

The agreement will allow NASA to go from an “agent of the Cold War” to an important force in international cooperation, Goldin argued, a crucial transition for the space agency that has converted opponents of the station to supporters.

Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) voted against the station last year but reversed his position Wednesday, convinced that the project had come “light-years in terms of design and mission,” he said. His shift was influenced by the foreign policy aspect of the station as well.

Goldin has also increased confidence in Congress that he can rein in runaway costs on the project through more focused management. Under Goldin, NASA put a single company, Boeing, and a single NASA center, the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, in charge of building the station.

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Goldin’s popularity has succeeded in winning support from traditional congressional blocs long opposed to the space station, such as among the black, Latino and female members, which Goldin argues shows that the agency is “getting more relevant to the country.”

And, although NASA has spent $11 billion on the project with little that is tangible to show for it, the agency now stands ready to begin serious work on the program. Contractors around the country will turn out 25,000 pounds of flight hardware this year and 75,000 pounds next year--a tiny fraction of the total job, but visible progress nonetheless.

Senate opponents of the project, led by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), asserted that Russia’s participation will not save any money in building the station, despite claims by NASA and the Clinton Administration to the contrary.

A General Accounting Office report cited by Bumpers said that, because of “lower than anticipated contributions of Russian hardware, Russian participation would add a net $400 million in funding requirements to the space station program.”

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Under last year’s agreement, Russia will supply a basic spacecraft for propulsion, along with guidance, navigation and control for the station. It will also provide Soyuz capsules to be used as rescue vehicles, should space station crew members need to return to Earth in an emergency, as well as systems for docking the shuttle to the space station.

The Senate vote Wednesday came on an amendment to the fiscal 1995 appropriations bill for various independent agencies, including NASA.


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