With budget cuts looming, space station plans proceeding, and debris from the Challenger washing up on Florida beaches, you’d think NASA officials would have plenty to worry about—but apparently not. The great substantive issue that’s been consuming the agency isn’t manned versus unmanned missions or the exploration of the Moon versus Mars. It’s Windows versus Macintosh.

The question at the center of the controversy—whether Houston’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) should replace 3,200 Macintosh computers with workstations running Windows ’95—has been hotly debated since June 1995, when a committee led by the JSC’s chief information officer, John Garman, proposed a Windows-only policy as a way of slashing $60 million from NASA’s budget over five years. “We believe that a single, standard operating system for office automation systems is the most cost-effective approach for this center,” Garman told MacWeek. But two hundred Mac users—many in the JSC’s engineering divisions, where Macs outnumber other computers by three to one—countered that Macs are cheaper to maintain and better suited to performing such critical tasks as flight-data processing and tracking the hardware used in shuttle orbiters. The no-Mac plan, they said, also failed to take into account the cost of retraining JSC staffers and converting files. Beginning in August 1995 the Mac users asked JSC officials to document the supposed savings—and they couldn’t.

In the past year and a half the Mac users have gone public with their case—though they’ve done so anonymously, fearing for their jobs. Billing themselves as Concerned Taxpayers, Johnson Space Center, they’ve leaked cost comparisons to KPRC-TV, Houston’s NBC affiliate, and pleaded for help with Congressman Tom DeLay of Houston, the House majority whip, whose staff raised the issue during last year’s NASA appropriations hearings. They’ve also gone directly to NASA’s chief administrator, Dan Goldin, asserting in a fax, “We can prove this is wasteful spending, yet JSC management has refused to listen. We want to work ‘Faster, Cheaper, Better,’ but we need the tools. And we need someone to listen.” Someone finally did. Last November, after a six-month investigation, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General ruled in favor of the Mac users, criticizing the no-Mac plan as bad budgeting and bad policy. “[I]t appeared that prudent technical and management judgment was not exercised,” the office’s report said. “The policy decision was not cost effective.” Still, the Mac attack may not be over. Before the inspector general got involved, the JSC ordered 3,500 new Windows-compatible computers, and the last of them are set to be delivered this month. “It’s business and bureaucracy as usual,” frets one engineer.