Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

SPACE STATION: LOOKING BEYOND THE HARDWARE. Because it is the first major NASA project that critically depends upon the participation of other countries, the station will break diplomatic, as well as a technological, ground. But Congress and some US scientists are still not completely sold on the idea.

FOR space station chief Andrew J. Stofan, the program he heads is more than NASA's ``next logical step'' in space. It represents a new, more integrated way of life for that turf-conscious agency. It also represents a new level of cooperation with - and dependence on - a set of foreign partners. Thus the space station program is making organizational and diplomatic advances while promising to provide a permanent outpost in orbit. ``This is new and different from anything we've ever done before,'' says Mr. Stofan.

``It is the first program NASA has ever had that cuts across the entire agency,'' he says. ``Yes, it touches every single other group at NASA. ... NASA has been in camps before.'' He adds, ``I think NASA will be a much better, stronger organization working as a team rather than as separate entities.''

About these ads

NASA has formed important foreign partnerships before, as in the case of the European-supplied Spacelab launched from the shuttle, or the German-made rocket engine for the agency's Galileo probe to Jupiter. But this is the first time that foreign partners play a crucial role in the development of what NASA considers a keystone program. (See accompanying story.)

Stofan calls it an opportunity for NASA and its partners - Canada, the European Space Agency (ESA), and Japan - to learn ``how to do a massive big thing really together.'' He believes ``this will be the precursor for future cooperation in space.''

Stofan and other space station boosters hope that those who must support the program will look beyond the hardware and recognize these other facets. Delays and redesigns forced by the kind of chronic underfunding that afflicted the shuttle's development could sour the new relationships.

NASA had already redesigned the station concept several times before it let contracts for the hardware last November. Now, by order of Congress, it must rethink even that scaled-back concept.

In December's deficit-paring budget resolution, Congress gave the station program $425 million for fiscal 1988. That's well below the $767 million program managers expected early last fall. Only $200 million is available before June.

Congress directed NASA to replan the program to fit similarly low budgets over the next several years. This could involve a further redesign of the station, a slowed construction schedule, or both. Congress will release the additional $225 million if it approves the new plan.

If there is any redesign, it will be a modification of what NASA calls the ``baseline configuration.'' As shown in the illustration, it provides living quarters for eight astronauts plus laboratories supplied by the United States, ESA, and Japan. These attach at the center of a 110-meter-long (120 yards) boom which also carries solar arrays to supply 75 kilowatts of electric power.

About these ads

The boom also has two attachment points for mounting a variety of scientific instruments. A mobile manipulator - a kind of sophisticated robot arm - will move along the boom to service equipment. It will even help put the station itself together.

NASA calls this its Block I station. This is the model it has authority to build and for which it has let contracts. Two polar-orbiting platforms with instruments for studying Earth's air, sea, and land are part of the Block I program.

NASA hopes, eventually, to enhance the station with more electric power and extra trusses to hold a variety of instruments and equipment. This Block II improvement would restore features dropped from an earlier design to cut costs. Block II may never be built. A committee of the National Research Council (NRC) - the operating arm of the National Academies of Science and Engineering - has reviewed NASA's station plans and cost estimates.

Its September report endorsed the Block I design as one that could carry out needed basic research. But it said Block II plans should be shelved until the US has a clearer concept of what it wants to do in space.

It explained: ``If the United States is going to remain a leader among spacefaring nations, the station must evolve to support this role. Lack of consensus on our long-term objectives in space limits the extent to which this evolution can be foreseen, thus it is too early to commit to Block II.''

On the Block I station, astronauts can perform a variety of experiments on the behavior of materials under weightless conditions. They can, for example, refine techniques for growing very pure semiconductor crystals for electronic uses.

Meanwhile, space biologists can study the effects of extended periods of weightless living on astronauts. The Soviets have already gained considerable experience with this.

It is hard to make a direct comparison between the station NASA plans and the Soviet Mir, now manned and orbiting overhead.

Mir is designed around a central living and work module to which other modules can be attached. The Kvant astronomical observatory attached to Mir last spring is the first of several of these. While NASA's station has no such provision, additional laboratories might be added in Block II.

NASA also plans to service satellites and free-flying platforms from the station. An orbital maneuvering vehicle - a kind of space tug - will help in this servicing. The station could become the hub of a kind of orbiting industrial park. The Soviets have announced no such plans for Mir.

NASA has a rival for the affections of Congress and the administration, however, in the unmanned, astronaut-serviced Industrial Space Facility (ISF) designed by Space Industries Partnership in Houston.

The facility will be a free-flying, pressurized structure launched by the shuttle. It would lease space to compa-nies, universities, or government agencies whose experiments would be installed and retrieved by astronauts.

NASA has praised ISF as a good facility to accompany the space station - mainly as a place to carry out manufacturing of drugs and materials. But it has belittled ISF's capacity for research, saying users want astronauts constantly on hand to tend their equipment.

The White House disagrees and has ordered NASA to launch and service the ISF and lease some of its space. Congress earmarked $25 million for this purpose in NASA's fiscal 1988 budget. This would ensure enough demand for Space Industries to proceed with ISF, even though it has not yet attracted much commercial business. At this writing, NASA is resisting the directive and the issue remains unsettled.

Congress is also concerned that NASA may neglect unmanned space programs in favor of the space station, just as it short-changed other programs to build the shuttle.

The budget report said NASA has not lived up to a commitment to devote at least 20 percent of its resources to space science and applications. NASA Administrator James Fletcher insists that the agency will not neglect this area. But there is widespread concern among US space scientists that they face a lean future.

NASA's station design has also drawn criticism because it doesn't provide large centrifuge facilities that simulate varying gravities. Variable-gravity research could be important in deciding whether to supply some level of gravity to astronauts traveling to Mars.

Stofan, however, says the majority of the expert advisory committee doesn't want a zero gravity station.

``They understand one G [Earth surface gravity] and they don't understand anything else. They said we've got to understand the other end of the spectrum - the zero gravity end,'' he says. If a variable-G facility is needed later, he adds, it can be a free-flying satellite that orbits near the station.

It is hard to know exactly when NASA's station will be operational, given the uncertainty of future budgets. NASA is aiming for the mid-1990s.

Overall cost of the program is also ``iffy.'' In 1984, when President Reagan ordered NASA to build a station within a decade, NASA put the cost at $8 billion. It revised that estimate to $14.5 billion (in 1984 dollars) a year ago. That does not include the ground facilities, launch services, or NASA personnel salaries, which boost the total to $21 billion (1984 dollars).

The NRC committee felt uneasy about these cost estimates. It came up with a projected total cost range of $21 billion to $25 billion in 1984 dollars or $25 billion to $29.9 billion in 1988 dollars.

Both NASA and the NRC committee stress that all such cost estimates are preliminary. Only as contractors begin cutting metal will they get the experience to give tighter estimates. Meanwhile, the committee repeats that, as was learned from the shuttles experience, up-and-down funding or stretched-out funding will raise overall costs.

The NRC report warns: ``The space station cannot be considered a ``one administration'' program, nor can it be developed ``on the cheap.'' It calls for ``adequate and predictable funding.''

It urges that the program be given three-year budgets, instead of annual authorizations, to help ensure such finding stability. Hard-pressed to hold down spending, neither Congress nor the administration has followed that advice.

For his part, Stofan observes stoically: ``The space station has been a tough thing to get sold. Each day we get a little closer.''

Foreign partners play vital role

CANADARM - the versatile manipulator Canada contributed to the shuttle - enhances the spacecraft's capability. But the United States could have orbited the shuttle without it. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) can't even build its planned space station - let alone operate it - without the even more sophisticated manipulator Canada will supply.

It's needed literally to help put the pieces of the station together. ``If the Canadians don't show up, I don't have a space station,'' says NASA associate administrator Andrew J. Stofan.

The fact that the United States is relying heavily on a foreign participant for such a critical item shows that it wants to make the space station project truly an international partnership, Mr. Stofan explains.

Besides the Canadian arm, which will evolve into a major equipment servicing center, NASA is counting on important station units from Japan and the European Space Agency (ESA). Japan is supplying a laboratory for space biology research. This will also have an outside platform for experiments with materials and equipment exposed to space.

A pressurized logistics pod that can ride the shuttle to transfer cargo will attach to the laboratory. It should be big enough for two astronauts to shelter in it in an emergency.

ESA plans a multi-unit contribution called the Columbus program. This includes two free-flying spacecraft besides a major laboratory to be attached to the station itself.

ESA will match the United States polar orbiting platform so that the station complex will include two Earth-scanning spacecraft. It will also supply an unmanned, astronaut-tended satellite for automated experiments - the Man-Tended Free Flier (MTFF) - which will orbit near the station.

NASA will launch the laboratory on the shuttle. But ESA will send its polar platform and the MTFF into orbit on its own Ariane rockets. It is also developing a small shuttle called Hermes that can carry astronauts to and from the MTFF.

While all of this may look good on paper, NASA has had some hard negotiating to do. Its prospective partners have wanted assurance of adequate access to the station and a say in how it is used. They also want reasonable assurance that the United States will actually go ahead with the program and not cancel it after they have made costly investments.

At this writing, Canada has signed a memorandum of understanding which must be ratified by its Parliament and by the US Congress. Japan and the ESA are still negotiating details of their participation.

Both the United States Congress and the Canadian Parliament have to endorse the memorandum of understanding NASA signed with Canada in December.

The ESA has been more cautious. It has been concerned both over having a satisfactory degree of control over station management and over the possibility of joining a venture involved in military research. The US Department of Defense has reserved the right to carry out experiments on the station without saying exactly what it may want to do.

NASA may be able to get around ESA's concern by confining any Defense Department research strictly to the US laboratory module. At this writing, it looked as though NASA and ESA were close to signing an agreement.

The United States could build the space station on its own. But it would cost the US taxpayers several billion more dollars to do so and would likely result in a less capable station.

Speaking just of Canada's contribution, Stofan says: ``It would probably cost us several hundred million dollars to build our own arm and the [considerable amount of] time to do it.'' He adds, ``This is really an international station.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.