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Space Station Deal Lauded, Lamented

WASHINGTON, D.C.--It took 4 years to hammer out an agreement for how 16 nations will build and operate the international space station, so most participants at the signing ceremony here yesterday expressed relief--particularly because the first launch toward completion in 2002 is less than 5 months away.

The exception was French education, research, and technology minister Claude Allègre, who looked decidedly grumpy. "I signed, but I made an addendum that we will not accept any increases in the budget," he said afterward. "If it ends up costing more, we will not pay." European officials say that Germany is likely to shoulder the largest European share of any increase in the station's $30 billion price tag or in its annual operating costs, which will top $1 billion.

But cost isn't Allègre's only gripe. "I am not a big fan of human flight in space," he told ScienceNOW. The former geochemist questions whether the station will produce worthy science. "If you ask me will I sponsor a trip to the top of the Himalayas, I will say yes if you bring me back some rocks. If not, I will say no." He says he's unconvinced that the station's proposed life sciences and microgravity experiments will offer similar tangible rewards.

Others at the gathering, however, were more upbeat. Jack Gibbons, President Clinton's science adviser and a past skeptic of the station's science mission, opined that the partners are "pursuing something larger than the space station"--cooperation, he says, that will lead to other joint R&D efforts. And Japanese ambassador Kunihiko Saito seemed thrilled about the prospect of his country establishing a toehold in space: "My favorite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey," he said.