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Orbiting factories: what lies ahead for NASA, industry

''The potential for manufacturing in space is unbounded,'' says NASA planning officer Joseph Loftus, whose 9th-floor Johnson Space Center office overlooks the increasingly crowded countryside south of Houston.

Mr. Loftus says that private industry's rush into space could develop so rapidly that the currently planned shuttle program wouldn't be able to handle the traffic.

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To avoid this problem, he calls for building transportation facilities now to ensure that ''anyone can routinely get to space, spend indefinite periods in space, and return substantial masses from space.''

He says the first step toward this solution has been accomplished with the reusable shuttle ''able to leave on time and arrive on time and get from A to B safely and economically.''

The next step, he says, is a cost-effective manned space station able to store and deploy the bulk cargoes shuttled back and forth rapidly by a fleet of shuttles.

Georgetown University social scientist Stephen Cheston agrees. Linking the shuttle with a permanent space station, he says, ''will trigger rapid utilization of space for production.''

President of the Institute for the Social Science Study of Space, Dr. Cheston adds that many new ideas about using space will develop once more people with varying backgrounds become accustomed to working in space ''in the way they would operate in the Arctic regions or in the Saudi deserts.''

Cheston says that ''Once you start producing products in space, you start attracting capital from the private sector.''

Benefits will multiply in his space scenario: ''Developing space in the next century would relieve pressure on the earth and gradually move your industrial capability outside the earth's biosphere, relieving pressure on the biosphere.''

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Raw materials for this new industrial area, says Cheston, will come from the moon and passing asteroids, with energy coming from 24-hour sunlight

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