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Clinton threat to space station angers Europe

THE BRITISH space experts at last week's Paris Air Show formed a gloomy crowd. The brightest hope they and their colleagues in the European Space Agency held - to hitch a lift to the stars on the back of the United States' space station, Freedom - looks set to be dashed. Freedom, centrepiece of the US manned space flight programme, is fighting for its life.

The members of ESA have already spent at least pounds 1bn on a laboratory called Columbus, which was to have slotted on to Freedom. Behind the scenes at the agency, many of those working on the Freedom programme are resigned to the possibility that it may never go ahead, and even see Russia, not the US, as a more trustworthy future collaborator.

Freedom was to have fulfilled the US dream of a permanent manned spaceport. Under President Reagan, who saw space travel as a supreme form of patriotism, Freedom prospered. More recently, efforts to curb the soaring costs of the space station by lopping chunks off the original design have transformed the story of man's greatest challenge to little more than light entertainment.

But President Bill Clinton is serious. Despite pre-election promises of commitment to the space station, one of his first acts as president was to order Nasa to produce plans for a cheaper version. He was keen to convince voters that he intended to improve the lot of people on Earth, rather than offer them the questionable satisfaction of conquering space.

Last week, Nasa handed the White House three cut-down options. But even the cheapest came in at a cost nearly dollars 2bn more than Mr Clinton stipulated. He is expected to decide Freedom's fate very soon, possibly this week.

His deliberations concern more than dollars 30bn of US taxpayers' money; but he is also juggling with the future of projects to which Nasa's international partners are heavily committed. Japan and Canada, as well as ESA, are building bolt-on sections. Both are impatient to learn Mr Clinton's views on Nasa's re-design plans.

The president may take pity on Nasa, believe its plea that it can cut costs no further, and give the go-ahead for a scaled-down space station. Equally, he may argue that the agency's failure to meet his budgetary target is the final straw, and cancel the whole thing.

This would be a politically rocky route to take. Nasa has ensured that tens of thousands of jobs ride on the future of the programme. It has scattered contracts with aerospace companies in 37 states, offering the hope of more than 70,000 jobs.

The cheapest of Nasa's three proposals, option C, is widely expected to be Clinton's choice. It comes with an immediate dollars 11.9bn price tag, can be launched in one go and is essentially a long tin cylinder with solar panels. The two other options are closer to current plans, but more costly.

The most comprehensive long-term estimates coming out of Washington, including a share of shuttle missions costs, now stand at dollars 27.2bn for a small modular station (option A), dollars 30.3bn for a reduced version of Freedom (option B) and dollars 25.2bn for the 'tin can'. The original design, assessed by the same criteria, comes in at dollars 35.8bn up to 2001.

Option C would pose the biggest threat to the role of Nasa's international partners. It is the most radical departure from the original, so raises the prospect of a new set of technical problems.

If Mr Clinton cancels Freedom altogether, he will certainly kill the space dream, but it will not be the end of manned space flight. The shuttle missions would still go ahead, although constructing and maintaining the space station was the shuttle's raison d'etre, and a glance at its mission timetable shows the shuttle programme will run out of useful things to do in just a few years.

Then there is Spacelab, a miniature version of the space station designed to be carried aloft inside the space shuttle. It is a further source of disharmony between ESA, which built the laboratory, and Nasa, which has more or less monopolised its use.

ESA's mounting disenchantment with the US increases the likelihood that it will now step up negotiations with Russia. After all, the Russians already have a space station, Mir, in orbit (with two cosmonauts currently on board) and seven years' experience of running it. In public, the director general of ESA, Jean- Marie Luton, makes light of possible joint programmes with the Russians, but the agency's eyes are more sharply focused on the East than ever.

If Mr Clinton goes for option C, ESA may well take this as its cue to pull out. When asked on Friday whether he still regarded the US as reliable partners, Mr Luton told the Independent on Sunday: 'I wait for the final proposal before I judge that.'

Germany, Italy and France have new space ministers, all more cost-conscious than their predecessors. For these politicians, the chance to pull out of the space station would be welcome.

But the abiding problem with the space station is that it was conceived in the heat of patriotic fervour, and sold to the American people as a driving force for technological development.

Nasa was never asked to spell out exactly what the space station was for, and now fumbles for a convincing answer to that question. Today's taxpayers are less inclined to believe the line about spin-offs from space ventures for medical treatment.

Microgravity researchers, once keen to grow perfect crystals of new materials in the calm of space, are not impressed by experiments that must share the space station with astronauts.

The most promising prospects the space station can offer is in examining the way the human body responds to weightlessness. But if all we learn by sending people into space is what happens to people when you send them into space, do we really need to know?

(Photograph omitted)