It is to be a scientific showcase - an orbital laboratory bristling with the latest know-how and the prospect of advancing manned exploration in space. But delays in the launching of the world's first reusable orbiting laboratory - the European-designed and built Spacelab - have punctured at least a few of the high-flying expectations surrounding its maiden voyage.
Spacelab was to lift off aboard the US space shuttle Columbia last Friday Oct. 28. But problems with one of the shuttle's two booster rockets have put the craft back in the hangar for at least one and perhaps four months.
A late November launch would mean different lighting and atmospheric conditions from those expected for an October mission - and thus would affect some of the experiments for the nine-day voyage.
Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), joint sponsors of the mission, are trying to reduce the adverse impact of the delay. They are juggling the sequence of experiments to coincide with different orbital conditions. They expect that some tests originally planned may be reflown on later Spacelab missions.
''We have successfully rearranged things so the impact is significantly less, '' says Dr. C.Richard Chappell, the chief mission scientist.
Of the 70 experiments to be carried out, 10 are expected to be affected by a delay. None will be scrapped altogether, NASA scientists say, but data gleaned from a few astronomy and earth observation tests will be reduced anywhere from 10 to 50 percent.
For the Europeans, the delays are becoming all too familiar. ESA has put nearly $1 billion into developing Spacelab over the past 10 years. Its first voyage has been put off several times, largely because of technical hitches with the US shuttle, in which the lab is to ride piggyback like a camper in a pickup truck. When Spacelab does finally go up, the shuttle will carry six astronauts, including the first European (West German) members of a US space team and the first two researchers.