President Bush's 1992 budget request for NASA follows the widely praised recommendations produced by a panel of experts in December, tilting away from the money-devouring space station project and toward a more balanced menu of science and technology development.

Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.), new chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, called the $15.7 billion budget request for fiscal 1992 "a good first step" toward more stable funding and predictable growth for the space agency.

A key Senate aide said that, with this budget, NASA and the administration finally have come to grips with the agency's past "insatiability." Referring to changes in the proposed space station, among other things, he said, "There are signs that {NASA} is internally confronting some of the sober realities."

Congress has lambasted NASA for failing, over much of the last two decades, to match its appetite for costly projects to the available money.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration faces its usual uphill battle in Congress, and by most accounts is unlikely to win the full 13.7 percent increase called for. Congress indicated last year that it should expect at most a 10 percent increase.

After adjustment for inflation, the proposed $15.7 billion represents 8.5 percent real growth, according to Brown. The Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, headed by Norman Augustine, chief executive officer and chairman of Martin Marietta Corp., had recommended 10 percent real growth throughout the 1990s.

The space program's fortunes this cycle will be linked tightly to the progress of the Persian Gulf War, congressional sources say. NASA must compete for money with the Veterans Administration hospitals that are to help care for the wounded, since both agencies are funded by the same appropriating committees.

"No doubt, the VA will be the major competitor for dollars. . . . It is in tough shape," another knowledgeable Hill aide said.

The proposed budget includes no new projects, except for providing $175 million for NASA's share of start-up work on a new, "more cost-effective" system of launch vehicles, as recommended by the panel. It is to be developed jointly with the Defense Department by around the year 2000.

The request calls for slower and cheaper development of the agency's centerpiece project -- the proposed space station Freedom -- freeing money for other areas. The orbital research facility would be held next year to an increase of 8 percent, or $2.2 billion, instead of the much higher increase NASA had in mind.

NASA Administrator Richard H. Truly told Congress last week that, under the new plan, the space station's first segment could be launched in late 1995 but that long stays by astronauts likely would not begin "until the end of the decade."

Calling the complex, manned space shuttle "a precious resource that should be conserved" and used only when absolutely necessary, the budget request would give it $6.5 billion. This would pay for nine shuttle flights scheduled for 1992. And it would provide $122 million for technology improvements to make shuttle flights more predictable.

The budget also would:

Increase space science programs by 21 percent, to $2.1 billion.

Provide NASA's Mission to Planet Earth with $773 million, for a series of spacecraft in orbit, and a vast data base on the ground, to help study global change.

Increase space research and technology by 45 percent, to $421 million, including $256 million for work on advanced technologies such as nuclear propulsion needed for the president's proposed human mission to Mars, by way of a lunar base, early in the next century.