NASA's Big Buyout

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Pssst! Want to buy some time in space? In a desperate effort to keep its cash-starved half of the International Space Station (ISS) afloat, the Russian Space Agency has offered to sell its counterparts at NASA the only thing it has left: allocation of astronauts. For a mere $60 million, NASA chief Daniel Goldin told members of Congress in a letter printed in the New York Times Monday, America will get "up to 100 percent of the research time previously allocated to Russia" -- and Moscow's space program effectively becomes a subsidiary of Washington's.

That will please the Clinton administration, which sees the ISS as a billion-dollar boondoggle designed to keep Russian scientists in employment and out of other nations' nuclear weapons programs. Capitol Hill, however, is more skeptical. "It's smoke and mirrors," said Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) of the House Science Committee. "What NASA has done is to propose a leveraged buyout of the Russian Space Agency." Wednesday's Science Committee meeting on the subject is likely to be ugly; Goldin would do well to offer free gifts and a money-back guarantee.