SPACE shuttle Endeavour's mission will symbolize what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration calls "the year of commercial space."
When NASA acting associate administrator Gregory Reck said that "1993 will stand as ... a benchmark for the development of the space frontier," he was talking about commercial use of the weightless environment of orbital flight. He also was talking about studying biological and physical processes, developing new materials, and eventually manufacturing materials under conditions unavailable on Earth.
Endeavour's seven- to eight-day mission involves two facilities designed for such work. Three days after launch - delayed from June 3 until mid-June because of a faulty pump - the crew will recover the European Retrievable Carrier (Eureca) satellite. This unmanned automated laboratory is ready to bring its experiments home to their sponsors after 10 months in orbit. Crew members will also work in the new commercially supplied Spacehab manned laboratory that fits into Endeavour's cargo bay.
Both Eureca and Spacehab are designed to carry a variety of experiments for commercial as well as government sponsors. Both also illustrate the major problem in developing this field: the reluctance of companies to participate. Most of the current experiments have some form of government support.
Eureca provides a long-duration weightless environment that also is free of the jiggles of astronaut activity. The European Space Agency (ESA) touted its commercial potential when the shuttle Atlantis placed it in orbit Aug. 2, 1992. Now ESA is rethinking its entire manned-flight-related program as it awaits the space-station redesign. In the absence of strong commercial interest, it has made no commitment to fly Eureca again. This first Eureca mission cost $428 million, including $213 million for the sa tellite. A second mission would cost only $150 million.
SPACEHAB is a different type of venture. The laboratory module's 50 experiment lockers double the shuttle's mid-deck locker capacity. The module's volume also expands astronaut working space.
Spacehab Corporation invested more than $100 million of private capital to develop and build two modules. But it needs government help to have a viable operation. NASA has leased 200 of the 300 locker spaces available on Spacehab's first six flights.
However, Spacehab has few customers for the other 100 lockers. This flight and the second Spacehab mission in November are secure. And NASA may consider leasing more lockers for the third flight.
Commercial companies have not ignored Spacehab entirely. A number of experiments in NASA-leased lockers have commercial sponsors. Often a company works with one of the 17 Centers for Commercial Development of Space (CCDS) that NASA sponsors at universities and other research institutions.
Comet (Commercial Experiment Transporter) - another NASA-encouraged venture - also has cost problems. This is a small satellite carrying 11 experiments. Launched by a commercial rocket, it orbits for 30 days, then releases a capsule that brings seven of the experiments back to Earth. It's a joint venture of the NASA-supported CCDS at the University of Tennessee at Tullahoma, Westinghouse Corporation in Baltimore, Space Industries International in Houston, and EER Systems in Vienna, Va., which will supply
the Conestoga launch rockets. The Tennessee CCDS commissioned the first 430-pound payload.
After several delays in readying the Conestoga rocket, the first Comet flight is likely in July or August. The project, however, is already some $5.5 million over budget. NASA's Reck has warned that more NASA support may be needed.
In its 1994 budget request, NASA asks for $25 million for Comet - up from $23 million last year. It wants $66 million for Spacehab - an increase of $17 million - although Spacehab funding would drop to $22 million for fiscal 1995.