Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) passed away yesterday. A legendary civil rights activist, his role at a pivotal point in the history of the space station program is less well known. He is the Member of Congress who cast the deciding vote in 1993 to continue the program despite years of cost overruns and schedule delays. Today’s International Space Station might not exist without his support.

The space station program began in 1984 with President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address.  On January 25, 1984, he directed NASA to build a permanent space station within a decade and to invite other countries to join.  Europe, Canada, and Japan soon did.

Over the nine years through his Administration and that of George H.W Bush, NASA spent approximately $11 billion on the Space Station Freedom program through multiple redesigns, yet not one piece of flight hardware was built as costs grew and schedules slipped.

When the Clinton Administration began in 1993, NASA revealed another $1 billion overrun.  It directed NASA to redesign the station again and reduce costs. By summer, as Congress was getting ready to pass a NASA authorization bill, it presented a new plan to a deeply skeptical and frustrated Congress.

The program had been on thin ice in 1991 when the House Appropriations Committee recommended terminating it in the FY1992 appropriations bill, but the House disagreed in a 240-173 vote.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), 1940-2020

Two years on, with another overrun and unconvinced the new plan was much better than the old, Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN) introduced an amendment to the FY1994 NASA Authorization Act to kill the program.

On June 23, 1993, he lost by a single vote 216-215.

That vote was cast by Rep. Lewis.

By the time of the vote, the Clinton White House was fully supportive of the program especially with the prospect that Russia might join as another partner. NASA’s human spaceflight program already had become one of the more visible symbols of the post-Cold War thaw between Russia and the United States, with the Bush Administration announcing joint flights on the U.S. space shuttle and Russia’s Mir space station. The Clinton/Gore Administration now wanted to take it to another level, with Russia joining in the U.S.-led space station program.

Speaking on the House floor that day, Lewis pointed to all the earthly benefits derived from NASA’s programs and defended the space station even in that era’s budget-constrained environment.

With regard to budget considerations, few in this Chamber can match my voting record on budget matters. I strongly believe we must balance our budget like any family in America and my voting record shows that belief.

However, when an American family runs into tough times, they do not take funds from their children’s education, they cut out unnecessary spending.

Cutting the station would be tantamount to taking money from a child’s education fund to continue to eat dinner out every night.

But his support was much deeper.  He spoke to dreams and American leadership.

I still believe, as do the majority of the American people, that it is America’s destiny to explore space. Not for the cold war reasoning of proving we are the greatest Nation on Earth, but because we are the greatest Nation on Earth. We became great by dreaming and pursuing that dream. As soon as we lose the ability to dream and reach for the stars we cease to be great.

Madam Chairman, let us keep the dream alive. Support the space station. All mankind will continue to reap the magnitude of benefits from this program.

The space station program survived that day as well as on June 28 when Rep. Roemer introduced a similar amendment to NASA’s FY1994 appropriations bill. That was defeated by a wider margin, 196-220.

It took more than a decade longer and billions of dollars more than anticipated to build the revised design, now called the International Space Station, but if not for Rep. Lewis, it might not be there at all, about to celebrate is 20th anniversary of permanent occupancy.

In a statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said:  “We mourn the passing of an American icon and civil rights leader, Representative John Lewis, who committed his life to uniting humanity, on and off this planet.  His leadership in support of the International Space Station helped develop a worldwide coalition in space. His legacy of supporting international cooperation will carry on through the Artemis program, which will include the broadest coalition in the history of space exploration.”