President Clinton has declared his enthusiastic support for building a space station in partnership with the Russians and secured a rare consensus on the issue from key skeptics in Congress.
Clinton, Vice President Gore and key members of Congress discussed the project at a White House meeting Monday. After administration officials explained the details and Clinton expressed his full commitment, congressional leaders "unanimously agreed" to support the effort, Gore said in an interview.
The proposal to construct a U.S.-led international orbiting facility beginning in 1997, with the Russians as a major partner, has been the subject of congressional wrangling since the administration floated the idea earlier this year. On Nov. 4, Gore and NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin briefed leaders of House and Senate space committees.
Members of Congress who have long supported a space station have balked at the notion of a Russian partnership for a variety of reasons, including uncertainty about the state of the Russian economy and the military-industrial infrastructure that operates the Russian space program; concern about the hidden costs of such a complex technical venture and how it would affect other NASA programs, and distaste for rewarding the former enemy in a way they say could cost American jobs.
Gore, who joined the president and Goldin in the meeting with House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and other members from both parties, said, "We answered each of their arguments and laid out our case. . . . They unanimously agreed to support" construction of the American-led international space station proposed by the White House and NASA, and a related series of joint missions in which the U.S. shuttle docks with the Russian space station Mir.
He said they had also agreed to lift the legislative "fence" Congress put around $100 million intended for Russian cooperative programs in next year's NASA budget, the first of four such annual payments to Russia.
Although numerous obstacles remain, including overall funding, the consensus reached at the meeting means the administration "has passed the final hurdle" along the way to an agreement Gore and Russian leaders plan to sign during a visit to Moscow in two weeks, the vice president said.
Members at the meeting included Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), who chair NASA appropriations subcommittees, and Reps. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex), officials said. Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), who chairs the House authorizing committee, and Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate science subcommittee, were traveling but were described as in agreement.
The plan seeks to expand the rationale for the space station beyond technology and jobs -- an approach that has kept it on the drawing boards in one form or the other since the mid-1980s -- and give it a basis in foreign policy.
White House officials painted the Russian partnership as a historic opportunity to beat swords into plowshares, or more literally to convert the deadly missiles of the Cold War into peaceful long haul trucking for the orbital facility.
"Those who met with the president," Mikulski said, ". . . enthusiastically agree with the bold foreign policy goal he has set out to accomplish with the Russians through the space station."
She added that the project's potential for generating good jobs in the United States also remains a factor for her.
Gephardt called the meeting "very positive" and said the vice president would go to Moscow with his blessing on the agreement.
The U.S.-Russian space station would save $2 billion compared with a space station absent the Russians, be completed two years earlier and provide a larger facility with more power, Gore said.
The project's other international partners in Europe, Japan, and Canada in recent days have signaled their intention to accept the plan despite earlier concerns, he and other officials said. Clinton plans this week to sign a decision memo on the matter and send a letter urging the partners to make their consent official on Dec. 6, the agreed deadline.
The White House end of the bargain was the president's "firm commitment to fight for the space station, with a new coalition . . . next year and every year," Gregory C. Simon, Gore's domestic policy adviser, said.
The glue that binds the new coalition, he said, will be its role in integrating the Russians into the international community in a way that builds on their strengths in space technology and enables them to be productive.
The push for U.S.-Russian cooperation was threatened earlier this year by a Russian move to sell missile technology to India. Russia since has agreed to back out of the $400 million deal. In conjunction with Gore's Moscow visit, officials said, the Russians are scheduled to sign a missile technology control agreement that would embrace the operating principles followed by the United States and formally cancel the deal with India.
Sources on Capitol Hill said that, despite the new unity, the undertaking with the Russians still presents formidable technical, cultural and funding challenges.
To address budget concerns, Simon said, the administration has agreed to merge the space station and shuttle program budgets with a single funding cap for both, giving managers more flexibility in spending.
This move is designed in part to mollify critics who complain that the space station will drain money from science. Now, officials suggested, it will be the shuttle program that gets drained.
To those who argue that the United States should not take the risk of making Russian assets an integral part of its space program, administration officials responded that the Russians, the world's leading pioneers in long-term human spaceflight, have agreed to abandon plans for their own second generation Mir space station. As one official put it, "The bigger question is what are the implications for the Russian program if we pull out. They are making a huge commitment."