The House of Representatives has just completed the first two rounds in the annual wrangle over funding for the space station. We go through this exercise every year, and every year we prevail and support the project.
No federal program can long endure the kind of annual sniping, redrafting and retrenchment to which they have subjected the space station; given a stable economic and political environment, the project would have been well on its way to completion with its original scientific missions untrammeled.But every year, its detractors have whittled away at it, eroding it piecemeal, forcing cutbacks and delay - only to come back the next year and criticize the sloth and inefficiency of NASA in completing the program.
Partly to lay these persistent criticisms to rest, President Clinton earlier this year directed NASA to redesign the space station to reduce its cost. This resulted in an intensive effort over a three-month period that culminated in the president's recent decision to endorse a simplified version of Space Station Freedom.
The president's call for a redesign was a difficult challenge for all involved in the space station program. What emerged, though, was a striking consensus: The space station is at the heart of the human space flight program. There are no dramatically better designs for the space station that preserve our research options and our international commitments.
What practical benefits will there be from such a facility? It is, of course, impossible to predict the future. The debate on the House floor was punctuated with letters, statements and testimonials from eminent scientists and engineers on both sides of the issue - some of whom hope to use the space station for their research, some of whom hope that canceling the station will fill the research larders of their own disciplines.
We undoubtedly will hear more of this shrill contest. While the future of the space station seems relatively secure in the Senate, I do not doubt that its opponents will continue to savage the program at every opportunity, including the conference reports that will reflect compromise with the Senate.
Continued harangue is the one thing that is guaranteed to escalate the cost, stretch out the time completion, and diminish the scientific capability of the space station - and its opponents know this. Their allies are time and confusion.
To continue this debate in the face of nearly a decade of public and congressional support undermines the very goals of efficiency and cost savings that the station's detractors espouse.
And it heightens the anxiety of the tens of thousands of Americans whose jobs depend directly on the space program, and of the hundreds of thousands more who will benefit from advances in science and technology accomplished by building the space station.
Our future - economically, intellectually, emotionally - is in the stars. We need the jobs provided by the space station; we need the scientific challenges of space-based design and engineering; we need the emotional satisfaction of exploration and discovery.
We need to move beyond the alphabet-soup politics of option A or B or C that have characterized the past few months of this debate. We need to move beyond dueling expert witnesses and continual second-guessing. We need to support the president's vision for manned exploration of space, a vision shared since our first venture into space with the American people.