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Changes Seen Imperiling Space Station

September 16, 1993|ROBERT W. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration's ambitious plan to collaborate with Russia on a radically different space station has put the controversial program in jeopardy once again on Capitol Hill.

On the eve of a critical Senate vote, some of the station's strongest supporters are voicing reservations about the Administration's decision to rework--for the second time in 90 days--plans for the long-delayed project.

The move could have serious implications for Orange County, home to McDonnell Douglas Aerospace, one of the space station's main subcontractors.

Vice President Al Gore's announcement Sept. 2 of the Russian partnership has raised questions among members of Congress about the impact on the beleaguered American aerospace industry, already buffeted by cuts in defense spending. Lawmakers also are worried about the new station's cost, launch schedule and scientific capabilities.

"Is this a well-paced approach? I would say, 'No,' " said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Mikulski remains a strong supporter of the program, but she said she is concerned that "many of my colleagues are unclear about what this means." Senators who are wavering "will use this as an excuse" to vote against the program, she said.

On the House side, Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology and a longtime champion of the space station, said he is "very concerned" about the uncertainties surrounding the plan to jointly build an orbiting space laboratory.

As Brown sees it, the station derives a significant amount of support from the idea that it would benefit American industry and advance the nation's technological interests.

"The thing is so delicately balanced (in Congress) that if I and our committee were to decide that this is no longer a program in the national interest, it's dead, no matter what the Administration decides it would like to have," Brown said.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), whose district includes the McDonnell Douglas plant, was an early advocate of Russian involvement in the project. But Rohrabacher said this week that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has developed an option that represents the worst of all possible choices.

"Instead of focusing on the things that the Russians can do that would help us do what we want to do more cheaply, they've decided to totally revamp what we want to do," Rohrabacher said.

The Senate is scheduled to vote next week on a $1.9-billion appropriation to continue the space station program next year. The House narrowly agreed to spend $2 billion on the project during the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. A report on the final details of the Russian involvement in the space station program is not due until Nov. 1.

Last year, the Senate voted, 63 to 34, to turn back an attempt by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) to kill the station.

But in the intervening 12 months, the project has been redesigned twice and NASA has suffered back-to-back embarrassments with the apparent loss of the $1-billion mission of the Mars Observer and the failure of a sophisticated weather satellite.

Bumpers said that next week's vote is now too close to call. "We don't have a design," he said. "We don't have a clue of what it's capability is going to be. We're back to square one."

The space station is critically important to the health of the Southern California aerospace industry, home to two of the project's principal contractors--McDonnell Douglas Aerospace in Huntington Beach and the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International in Canoga Park.

Both companies in August lost out to the Boeing Co. in a bid to become the redesigned space station's prime contractor, a move that has already cost 200 jobs in Huntington Beach.

"It is very sobering, indeed chilling, to hear these warnings from two of the strongest supporters of the space station on Capitol Hill," said McDonnell Douglas spokesman Thomas E. Williams.

"McDonnell Douglas welcomes the Russian involvement in the space station because it makes sense. However, at the same time, we have serious concerns about loss of work on the program, and thus jobs," he added.

McDonnell Douglas, for example, originally was scheduled to build the propulsion system for the station that now could be supplied by the Russians. Before the recent layoff, the company had employed up to 2,500 people in its space station division in Huntington Beach and Houston, Williams said.

"It is essential that the design stabilize so that we can build hardware," Williams said. "By this time next year Congress will want to see progress or the program could die."

At NASA, a high-ranking official insisted that the basic space station design presented to Congress and the White House earlier this month, known as "Baseline Alpha," would undergo only minor modifications if the Russians become full partners in the program.

"We have a design," said Robert Clarke, NASA's associate administrator for international relations. "We think it does everything we've been asked to do in terms of saving money," and preserving the station's scientific mission.

Clarke conceded, however, that some key elements of the plan remain to be worked out.

Despite Clarke's reassurance, lawmakers said they remain worried by a host of knotty technical and political questions raised by the decision to offer the Russians a partnership in the project.

Among the issues that remain unresolved are the type of propulsion system that will keep the new station aloft, the path of its orbit and details of the launch schedule.

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