Building a permanent presence in orbit -- a laboratory/service station/factory
In the opening years of the space age - from 1958 to 1970 - US satellites suffered 1,230 technical problems. It is now estimated that some 45 percent of those malfunctions could have been fixed in orbit, had astronauts been able to make service calls.Skip to next paragraph
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Such service is one of the benefits that US space planners envision as a new era of manned spaceflight develops over the next 10 to 15 years. This is the era in which the planners expect the United States to lay down the first elements of a permanent infrastructure for using near-Earth space in a routine way. This probably will be done in partnership with at least Japan and some European nations.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is scheduled to try its hand at satellite servicing next April. Then it hopes shuttle astronauts can repair the Solar (sunspot) Maximum Mission (SSM) satellite that has been crippled by loss of its attitude-control system since October 1980.
But there is much more to the space planners' vision than making service calls. As the shuttle's ability to remain in orbit is extended to 30 or even 90 days, they expect manufacturing of pharma-ceuticals and perhaps semiconductor materials to begin. This could be done on the shuttle or on free-flying unmanned craft that astronauts could tend. Eventually, in the next decade, the planners expect some sort of permanent space station to be the hub of a network of free-fliers and other satellites, while also offering a laboratory for space research and equipment development.
Such is the vision that underlies NASA's conclusion that laying down this infrastructure and building a space station is the next logical and desirable major step for manned spaceflight.
As outlined in the first article of this series, critics such as the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) say they believe the United States needs a clear sense of what it wants to do in space before committing itself to anything as ambitious as a space station. Yet even such criticism focuses on the choice of projects, the speed of development, and the amount of money to spend. No one knowledgeable about spaceflight appears to doubt that humanity is indeed entering a new phase of this portentous activity.
This is already showing up even in the design of satellites. If astronauts are to service equipment in orbit, this must be made as easy as possible for them. Thus NASA has already introduced a standard modular satellite design, adaptable for different purposes. Malfunctioning parts can simply be pulled out and replaced by new units. The SSM and Landsat-4 Earth resources satellites (both of which have malfunctioned) are the first such vehicles. Among satellites yet to be launched, the Gamma-Ray Observatory, a Landsat backup, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, and Fairchild's Leasecraft - a communications satellite for hire - share the modular design.
NASA administrator James M. Beggs says he believes the concept of in-orbit support and servicing (including satellite refueling) will open new possibilities for useful space applications that can only partially be foreseen today. It is a concept, he says, which will be fully implemented when a space station makes such servicing constantly available.
He explains: ''We feel strongly that the space station is a desirable next step primarily because it provides the means to open a lot of other options. It allows us to put a research center up in space. . . .
''It will provide an easy way that business can go up and work and test out any commercial ideas that they may have. But more important, it will allow us to operate more sophisticated scientific equipment because we can man-tend it . . . [We can] experiment in space, start to make real time analysis in space.''
Mr. Beggs acknowledges that some scientists are skeptical of his dream. They fear that a space-station project might drain off funds that could have supported more unmanned space exploration. However, he says he believes even skeptical scientists will come to see that ''we will realize the full benefits from our space research by getting up there and actually working, experimenting.'' This will begin with the shuttle. But it is the space station, where scientists and others can stay for several months at a time, which will offer the fullest space research opportunities, Beggs says.