Space planners in Western Europe are trying to extricate themselves from a tricky dilemma over future flights of the world's first reusable space laboratory.
They want to set up a barter arrangement with the US in which European expertise in science is traded for cut-price trips into space aboard the space shuttle.
Planners at the European Space Agency in Paris have proposed a $200 million program over five years that would strengthen Western Europe's position in the area of low-gravity experiments in space. The hope is that equipment produced as a result of the program will prove useful to American scientists, too.
The hardware could then be taken into space during joint missions between Western Europe and the US by way of exchange. NASA would either waive or greatly reduce the fees for taking into orbit the European part of the payload. The European plan revolves around Spacelab, an orbiting laboratory which the shuttle is due to take into space for the first time in October.
Over the past 10 years the 11 nations of the European Space Agency (ESA) have spent some $1,000 million developing the laboratory. The hardware looks like a large aluminum can with room for several people. It will stay inside the shuttle's cargo bay for trips of a week to 10 days. In it, astronauts and scientists can do experiments that take advantage of the low gravity and vacuum of outer space.
For instance, they can investigate ways of making new materials that would be impossible or highly difficult to manufacture on earth. Further, Spacelab should prove valuable for studying the human body or plant specimens.
Under a deal hatched with NASA in 1973, the space shuttle will convey Spacelab into orbit on its first flight at no cost to the European nations. The snag for Europe is that after the first flight Americans take possession of the laboratory. NASA will then charge anyone who wants to use the laboratory, including the European nations that developed it, at commercial rates.
To the consternation of the countries in Western Europe, the cost of putting Spacelab into orbit will be almost prohibitively high. A trip of one week in Spacelab will cost between $100 millon and $130 million, according to estimates. A large portion of this is represented by fees to NASA for using the shuttle, the only vehicle suitable for taking Spacelab into orbit.
The high costs put the European nations in a dilemma. They would find it difficult politically to abandon Spacelab, having put so much into it. The tricky situation is felt most strongly in West Germany, which has put up more than half the development costs of Spacelab.
''There are definite financial problems,'' said an official at Germany's Ministry of Research and Technolgy. ''But we are of the opinion that we should not develop Spacelab and then fly it only a couple of times.''
The idea of sharing flights with the US on the basis of extra hardware developed by Europe represents one way out of the dilemma. In the program envisaged by the planners at the ESA, scientists and industrialists in Europe would devise equipment for doing specific experiments, for example, on the effects of combustion in outer space and on human physiology in low gravity. Europe would also build up expertise that could form a bargaining counter in any bid to get NASA to reduce its fees.
''The future of the microgravity program in Europe will depend on deals of this kind,'' said Heinz Wolff, a British scientist who is chairman of ESA's advisory committee on space experiments.
The only Spacelab mission backed by Europe that is definitely going ahead after the first flight is a German project, code named D-1, which is due in 1985 . Germany is also tentatively proposing a second mission, D-2, which could go ahead in 1988.
Possibly, this could be in conjunction with the US in a joint mission along the lines of what the ESA's space planners envisage.