THE DESIGN of the proposed international space station Freedom has become a battlefield where the forces of change are fighting two decades of governmental bad habits.

Building a habitable outpost in orbit has been a dream of space enthusiasts since early in the century. But the plans for this one were developed at a time in the 1970s when NASA was fighting for survival and it was designed, some officials acknowledge, partly to save the agency and its skills.

Often redesigned, the station plan most recently featured a 500-foot beam supporting four modules: a laboratory and living quarters built by the United States, and two laboratories built by the European Space Agency and Japan, with a large robot arm supplied by Canada.

Up to now, the space station has followed a pattern similar to the shuttle: inadequate funding and the need to please varied constituencies leading to overpromising by NASA, leading to delays which drove up costs, leading to repeated redesigns and reductions in the station's size and capabilities. These problems were compounded by turbulence in the project's complicated management structure, caused in part by the high cost of living in Washington and Reston, where the project is managed.

This contributed to problems with the station's weight, power and maintenance requirements which surfaced this spring. They, along with the station's reliance on more than two dozen shuttle flights for its construction, drove confidence in the project to a new low.

Now Congress has given NASA 90 days to come up with a re-redesign that would break the structure into smaller, less costly modules to be launched in self-sufficient phases, as money allows, with microgravity research as the first priority.

Stay tuned.