West Europe is preparing to prove that ''small is beautiful'' when it comes to the next generation of space platforms for scientific experiments. The 11 countries of the European Space Agency (ESA) are partners with the US in the first flight of Spacelab, due on Nov. 28.
ESA developed Spacelab, which is the world's first reusable space laboratory, over 10 years at a cost of $800 million. It is built to fly inside the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle for up to 10 days at a time.
But the high costs of Spacelab missions have persuaded the West Europeans to plan for a far less grandiose space platform. Called Eureca, for European Retrievable Carrier, this will weigh only four tons, compared to about 14 tons for Spacelab.
Still more important, while Spacelab's main feature is a pressurized cylinder in which scientists can work, Eureca will definitely be off limits for people. Instead, the platform will carry racks into which different sorts of experiments can be fitted. Unlike Spacelab, however, it will have its own power source and will be able to survive in space away from the shuttle.
ESA's plans call for a shuttle to take Eureca into space in 1987, jettison it in orbit some 250 kilometers above the earth, and return to pick up it up some eight months later.
In the meantime, a series of scientific investigations will be whirring away on the platform, supervised by automated controls and by radio commands from ground stations.
In the first mission, ESA planners propose several experiments in materials science. In these, investigations will take place into how, for example, different chemicals or metals mix in the low-gravity environment.
Other hardware will test how new kinds of crystals separate from solution under weightlessness. Eureca will also carry experiments in botany, for example, to see how plants grow in space, and in protein chemistry.
The space agency's members are perturbed at the high cost of Spacelab missions. To put the orbiting laboratory in space for one week will cost about $ 160 million.