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Space station is a bad way to spend our tax money

Promoters of space station Freedom made a persuasive case in the House last week. They did not make a convincing case. The regrettable truth is that this $2-billion baby is a bad buy. The taxpayers' money can be far better spent on other projects here on Earth or out in space. During six hours of impassioned debate, the House heard all kinds of arguments in favor of continuing the project. It would inspire our young people. It would demonstrate American leadership. It would be the first step on the road to Mars. To kill the space station, we were told, would alienate such partners in the venture as Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. They would never trust us again. And so on, rah-rah-rah and sis-boom-bah. The vote was 240-173 to pour another $2-billion into this huge black hole.

Roughly $5.6-billion already has been spent on Freedom. It seems an incredible amount to invest in preliminary studies, but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a way of spending money with a lavish hand. The pending authorization for 1992 is critical. If the Senate goes along with the House, the project will have passed a point of no return. Congress will be committed to keep funding the space station into the next century and beyond.

No one, least of all NASA, has any clear idea of the financial burden the taxpayers would be assuming. It will cost a minimum of $30-billion to get the station assembled in space. That is NASA's own estimate. No one gives it the slightest credence.

But assuming that this fictional figure has substance, the taxpayers may well ask: What would we be getting for this huge chunk of money? The answer is, not much. The original design called for a permanent crew of eight; the current design would house a crew of four. The size of the station has shrunk from 40 feet to 27 feet. Once we were promised multiple experiments that would produce multiple spin-offs. Now sponsors are down to two experiments, one of which could be performed better on Earth. Nothing more is heard of spin-offs.

On this point, let us listen to John Pike. He is director of space policy for the American Federation of Scientists.

The problem today, said Pike, "is that we are now down to the point that the only two user communities that are left are the materials research community and the space medicine community, and it appears that we can't even do both of those."

Pike and other witnesses voiced practical objections. In its present configuration, the station would have enough fuel on board to remain in orbit for only a year. If NASA should suffer another Challenger disaster, the crew then on Freedom would have to escape aboard an emergency return vehicle _ a vehicle, incidentally, that does not even figure in NASA's estimate of costs. It would cost another $2-billion.

The agency has based its projections of cost and completion on a highly improbable scenario. Parts for this complex assembly would have to arrive for launch on time. Shuttles would have to perform immaculately. There could be no serious malfunctions in computers. Our foreign partners would have to be kept happy with their role. To meet deadlines of 1995 to 1997 would require timely and successful tests of the structural elements. All this seems a great deal to ask of the same wonderful people who gave us the Hubble telescope.

There are alternatives to a manned space station. It is generally agreed that much valuable research may be done at far less expense through unmanned satellites and space probes. Such projects might lack the "prestige" of a manned station, but the return on investment would be many times higher. It will cost at least $2-billion a year simply to maintain Freedom in its orbit. Senators should ask themselves if the sum could be more profitably spent on science education in our schools.

It was clear from the House debate that members still have a lively interest in space exploration. There wasn't a flat-earth spokesman anywhere. But hours of visionary rah-rah-rah provide a poor substitute for sober appraisal of this venture. It's a bummer. Kill it.

Universal Press Syndicate