Battle lines are being drawn between President Bush and Congress in a new kind of "Star Wars." But this time it isn't about weapons, it is about the future of the U.S. space program in general and whether to build an orbiting space station in particular.
The conflict unexpectedly burst on the scene this week when the House Appropriations Committee essentially canceled the space station by eliminating the first $2 billion for the $30 billion project from a spending bill. Angered by the move, Bush is threatening to veto the rest of the spending package.Administration officials also are seeking to send an amendment to the full House to restore the $2 billion. They also believe the project will be approved in the Senate and can be ironed out in a House-Senate conference, if necessary.
However, this promises to be a lengthy and bitter fight.
The space station is the next step in America's commitment to manned space flight. Without the project, the entire space program ultimately could decline into a kind of backwater, a routine shuttle program without new frontiers or challenges. The whole manned space flight effort could end.
Such an outcome could be a significant loss to U.S. prestige, to advances in technology and science, and to the ability of NASA to attract and keep bright young scientists and engineers.
In addition, NASA already has spent $4 billion on the project and Japan $1 billion. Several other countries have pledged $8 billion worth of equipment to be attached to the space station.
Clearly, the loss of the space station would be a tremendous blow. Yet as unhappy as that would be, the country could live with it if there were other benefits gained in return.
For example, Congress must start coming to terms with the idea that the federal budget has to be balanced and that the function of Congress is not merely to spend, spend, spend. Continued deficits will produce economic disaster. Cutting $30 billion from the budget through the year 2000 would have its advantages.
Those who voted down the space station said they did so with heavy hearts, and in fact, cited budget deficit reasons. "The sad thing is, we just don't have the money," said Rep. Bob Traxler, D-Mich., who chairs the subcommittee that oversees NASA.
Unfortunately, failing to fund the space station for lack of money, then turning around and using the $2 billion for a variety of domestic programs - which is exactly what the committee did - doesn't help the deficit one bit.
For those who engage in such ploys - offering themselves as budget-cutters while simply moving the money elsewhere - are engaging in a form of hypocrisy. If the space station must fall victim to budget deficit realities, let's actually use the savings to reduce the budget shortfall.
Otherwise, the space station will be lost for nothing and the deficit will be just as big as ever.