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Space station just not a priority

In voting to restore funding to NASA's manned space station, the House on Thursday showed blind allegiance to an agency that would benefit more from a firm hand that led it to more realistic goals. A country facing $3-trillion in debt and unmet domestic needs simply can't afford this uncertain adventure. Aside from the fact that no one knows whether it will eventually cost the $30-billion NASA claims or up to $180-billion by some estimates, there is also considerable scientific debate both outside and within NASA about the wisdom of making the orbiting laboratory the centerpiece of America's space effort for well into the 21st century. Already its troubled seven-year history includes eight major redesigns at a cost of $5.6-billion.

But rejecting the space station wouldn't mean, as NASA supporters claim, that the country would be rejecting a strong space program _ only that it was holding out for one that makes more sense.

The space station is part of the research for a long-range $500-billion scheme, endorsed by President Bush, to send a manned mission to Mars. One way to look at that might be to say that we've already blown the Mars budget on cleaning up after crooked savings and loans, which only leaves us to figure out how to provide millions of Americans with health care, decent housing, schools, infrastructure, clean air and water _ the list is endless.

In other words, a manned Mars effort right now is a paragon of bad timing. In casting its lot with it, NASA is using the same reasoning that led it to the troubled shuttle program on which the space station will depend: the belief that such a mission will capture the public's imagination _ the key to keeping the funds flowing.

The Senate still has a chance to challenge the House's decision, and it should. Putting the project in mothballs would mean complications, including lost jobs in the aerospace industry in Florida and elsewhere; but that is no reason to throw good money after bad. As a recent report reminded NASA, there is plenty of good space science to be done without over-reliance on the high drama but relative inefficiency of manned space flight.

Eventually man will get to Mars _ and even to the Star Trek technology NASA's backers invoked in six hours of passionate House debate. But that should be when we're ready, not when public relations experts think we should be. Especially in tight budget times, NASA should be guided by the needs of science, not by a vain attempt to recapture the faded glory of the moon race era.

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