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Senate Backs Plan for U.S.-Russia Manned Orbital Lab : Space: Failure of effort to kill station is boon to contractors including McDonnell Douglas, with plant in Huntington Beach.

September 22, 1993|ROBERT W. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the first congressional action on the proposed U.S.-Russia space station, the Senate on Tuesday endorsed the Clinton Administration's controversial plan to build the international orbiting space laboratory.

The 59-40 vote killed an amendment offered by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) that would have halted the program by slashing the $2.1-billion space station budget for fiscal 1994 to only $500 million to cover shutdown costs. The money was included in a $14.6-billion appropriation for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which the Senate continued to debate Tuesday night.

The vote was being watched carefully in Huntington Beach, home to McDonnell Douglas Aerospace, one of the space station's principal contractors.

The Senate's decision allows NASA to continue negotiations with Russian space officials to develop a new, jointly built space platform to carry out microgravity and biological research. NASA has set a Nov. 1 deadline for agreement on details of the new design. The House has already approved the 1994 budget for the old space station program.

"I am thrilled," NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said after the Senate vote. "We have some work to do with the Russians in the weeks ahead . . . and, hopefully, we'll be able to work something out that the Congress will be comfortable with."

Bumpers' reaction was equally dramatic. "I'm discouraged almost to the point of despondency," said the Arkansas senator, who failed for the fifth time to kill the space station.

In the 24 hours before the vote, the Administration lobbied heavily for the program. A top State Department official told senators at a Monday briefing that the joint space project was a key element in the Administration's effort to prop up Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore telephoned wavering lawmakers Monday and Tuesday, and wrote letters to senators strongly backing the program.

California's senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both voted to support the project. Boxer had been a consistent critic of the program when she served in the House of Representatives.

"This means that America can continue to do what it does best, which is forge the technology for generations to come, with innovation and skill," Feinstein said after the vote. "And it's an important project for California, because of its economic impact."

The space station program has been strongly supported by California's beleaguered aerospace industry, which has been badly hurt by dramatic cuts in defense spending.

The state is home to two major space station contractors--the McDonnell Douglas facility and the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International in Canoga Park--as well as a host of subcontractors. About 5,000 Californians are working directly on the space station.

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.

McDonnell Douglas, for example, originally was to provide 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 both its space station division in Huntington Beach and Houston, officials said.

During 14 hours of debate over two days, Bumpers and other critics argued that the new deal with the Russians puts Congress in the position of spending billions of dollars on a project that has no final design or cost estimates.

"You can't dance at two weddings," said Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn). "This is a test about whether we're serious about deficit reduction."

The critics argued that the shaky nature of the Russian democracy, underscored by President Boris Yeltsin's decision Tuesday to dissolve the Russian parliament, will make the Russian Federation an unreliable partner in a complex space venture. And they said the Russian space program "is in shambles."

At the same time, Bumpers and others dismissed arguments by space station supporters that the project could, in the long run, help provide cures to diseases like AIDS and cancer.

"You'll get more cancer cure out of a tube of Neosporin than you'll ever get out of" the space station, Bumpers aid.

But supporters said the space station is a project the United States cannot afford to abandon, even in tough economic times.

"The quest for knowledge, the curiosity about the unknown almost always seems to pay off in the future beyond anything we anticipate," said Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the Earth.

In February, President Clinton ordered NASA Administrator Goldin to scrap the nearly completed plans to build what was then known as Space Station Freedom, a $31.3-billion program that would have been ready to permanently house a crew of four astronauts by the year 2000.

Under orders from Clinton, Goldin directed a 90-day cost-cutting effort that produced a new, scaled-back design for a $25-billion station that was unveiled in June. Even as NASA engineers were refining the new design, Gore announced on Sept. 2 that the United States had signed a tentative accord making the Russians full partners in the program.

Gore said a new design, accommodating the Russians, would be completed in 60 days.

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