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NASA is challenged on ground, in space

The nation's space agency confronted major problems in the heavens Thursday but got good news on Earth. In the silence of space, a loose seal on the shuttle Columbia's cargo bay doors has NASA officials wondering if they can properly close the doors before landing.

But in the noisy chambers of Congress, the House restored funds for a manned space station after hearing warnings that killing the project would cripple the U.S. space program.

Here are the details.

An emergency

walk in space

NASA told Columbia's astronauts Thursday they may have to make an emergency spacewalk as early as this weekend to fix a loose seal on the space shuttle's cargo bay doors.

A special team of engineers was conducting tests to determine whether the flapping weatherstripping will prevent the doors from closing tightly at the end of the mission.

"There are no real concerns that we couldn't today, right now if we needed to, crush that seal and latch the doors down," NASA flight director Randy Stone said. "But it's always the better part of valor to analyze things in their entirety and understand all of the options you have in front of you, and that's what we're doing."

"We know we can close the doors so they will do what they are supposed to do," said NASA spokesman Ed Campion.

In the event the doors could not be closed properly, some components of the shuttle might be damaged by the high temperatures of re-entry, Campion said. But, he added, even that situation was not likely to be a danger to the astronauts.

NASA engineers planned to duplicate the problem today on the shuttle Discovery at Kennedy Space Center.

Stone said a spacewalk, if necessary, probably wouldn't occur before Sunday. The likeliest day would be Tuesday, a slow research day that would have the least impact on medical work being conducted by the astronauts, he said.

Two of the seven astronauts _ Tamara Jernigan and James Bagian _ are trained to perform spacewalking repairs, including manual closing of the two cargo bay doors. Bagian, a physician, is one of four medical specialists on board who are conducting blood tests and other experiments on one another.

Before a spacewalk, the crew probably would be asked to try closing the cargo bay doors, although that could cause more problems, Stone said. He said any spacewalk would be short and relatively simple _ either trying to put the seal back in place or clipping off the loose part.

The four medical specialists drew more blood, breathed gases from a pipe and donned pressure-monitoring collars Thursday as they circled the world in the most elaborate medical clinic ever sent into space.

It is the first shuttle mission devoted to understanding how the body adjusts to weightlessness. Also aboard are laboratory rats and jellyfish.

Despite the medical team's expertise with needles, the blood collection took a little longer than expected.

"It's still running a little ragged because everything takes longer and people are scattered and veins are not cooperating. But I think we're getting it all done," said M. Rhea Seddon, the doctor in charge of Spacelab, the pressurized laboratory module in the cargo bay.

Space station reborn

In Washington, the House rescued the embattled space station, voting to spend nearly $2-billion next year on NASA's centerpiece program.

By a vote of 240-173, the House agreed to give President Bush $1.9-billion that the space agency requested for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The money will be taken mostly from other NASA programs.

The Senate must also approve the money.

The impassioned debate over the space station lasted six hours in the House.

"If we aim to become a second-class nation, then we should go ahead and kill the space program, kill the space station and kill it all," said Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas.

Advocates of the space station invoked the names of space pioneer Wernher von Braun, the moon program, the Bible, "Neil Armstrong's Spirit," Daniel Webster and Star Trek.

They warned that America's manned space program would end in mid-decade if the project were canceled and that America's young people would turn from science and engineering education without a big goal to shoot for.

Those opposed denounced the withholding of help for veterans, the poor, the environment for the sake of a program that one member called "a budgetary black hole in space."

Space Station Freedom, to be built and in orbit by the end of the decade, is the centerpiece of NASA's plans to meet the president's goal of establishing a base on the moon and sending an expedition to Mars.

How they voted

The House voted 240-173 Thursday to restore money for NASA's space station. A "yes" vote is a vote to restore the money. Here is how Florida's representatives voted.

Democrats _ Bacchus, Y; Bennett, Y; Fascell, Y; Gibbons, Y; Hutto, Y; Johnston, N; Lehman, N; Peterson, Y; Smith, N.

Republicans _ Bilirakis, Y; Goss, Y; Ireland, Y; James, Y; Lewis, Y; McCollum, Y; Ros-Lehtinen, N; Shaw, Y; Stearns, Y; Young, Y.

_ Information from the Associated Press, Reuters and Times staff writer David Ballingrud was used in this report.