NASA looks forward to record-setting '84 launch schedule
NASA is looking forward to what it calls ''a record-setting launch schedule for 1984.'' Its list of 10 space shuttle flights and 12 unmanned missions includes twice as many manned flights as have ever been launched before in a single year. This would indeed be a record. Yet the schedule also shows how mundane the once-pioneering business of satellite launching has become.
The bulk of the payloads, by far, are service oriented. They include some two dozen communications satellites, to be orbited for United States and foreign customers, plus two Earth resource survey satellites and one weather scanner. A few unspecified military payloads and a few scientific experiments complete the list.
This heavy emphasis on work-a-day projects does not mean space pioneering is over. But it is no longer the main focus of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
NASA officials do note that the next shuttle mission, now scheduled for Feb. 3, will involve work at the manned space flight frontier when an astronaut tests a rocket-powered backpack. Then, on the mission scheduled for April 4, this Manned Maneuvering Unit will allow an astronaut to move over to the partly disabled Solar Maximum Mission satellite to help maneuver it on board the shuttle for repairs.
NASA considers this an important opportunity to demonstrate what its planners expect to become a new mode of operation for the agency - the repair and maintenance of major research and commercial facilities in space. NASA Chief Scientist Frank McDonald says that this will provide semipermanent equipment in orbit for use by the entire scientific community, which up to now has had to make do with expendable, often short-lived, satellites.
A small astronomical payload called SPARTAN-1, to be launched by the Aug. 9 shuttle mission, represents a less dramatic change for space scientists. This is one of the first of what Dr. McDonald says will be new opportunities for individual investigators or university research teams to make use of the shuttle.
Up to now, many such scientists have carried out low-budget projects using sounding rockets. This has been an especially useful opportunity for graduate students. McDonald notes that the few minutes of observing time these rockets provide before falling back into the atmosphere no longer are attractive to researchers. He says his office is giving high priority to finding ways to use the shuttle for low-cost projects. SPARTAN-1 is a first step in doing this.
Meanwhile, NASA scientists often point out that the annual launch schedule gives a very inadequate impression of ongoing US space science. McDonald notes that NASA has 14 to 15 scientific satellites and deep-space probes operating and returning data right now. They include such long-lived spacecraft as Pioneer 10 and ISEE-3, which have acquired new missions.
Launched March 3, 1972, Pioneer 10 left the solar system when it crossed Neptune's orbit last June 13. Now it has become the first man-made probe to begin direct exploration of this remote region.
For its part, ISEE-3 - the International Sun-Earth Explorer - has even earned a new name. It took up a station between Earth and the sun after it was launched Aug. 12, 1978. The satellite has a rocket engine. Its Earth environment research completed, NASA controllers have used its engine to send the satellite on a deep-space mission to study comets. They have given it a new name - International Cometary Explorer - and expect it to probe the comet Giacobini-Zinner Sept. 11, 1985. Later, it should also return data on Halley's Comet when this approaches the sun in another two years.
Meanwhile, the NASA launch team will be aiming for a record in reliability this year, as well as in the number of shuttle missions. NASA notes that 1983 was the seventh straight year with a perfect launch record. NASA officials would like to make 1984 the eighth such year.