Space station gains momentum. NASA awards contracts worth $138 million to fine-tune project's design . . .

A recent aerospace company ad said it all: ``The world needs a place like no place on Earth -- NASA space station.'' That neatly captures President Reagan's vision of the station as ``a high road . . . to the permanent occupation of space.'' It also captures the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's conception that it represents ``the next logical step'' in orbital flight, and the aerospace industry's perception that there's business to be had right here on Earth, right now, in translating the President's vision into detailed engineering designs.

The industry submitted around a dozen bids for some $138 million worth of contracts for the so-called ``Phase B definition'' studies of the space station, which got under way Monday. The final two contracts were awarded Tuesday to McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell International. The bidding teams included more than 100 United States companies.

NASA expects these 18-month studies -- which will also include Canada, Europe, and Japan -- to further identify space-station requirements and sharpen the overall design. Additional studies will be made.

But NASA has said it would like contractors to begin ``cutting metal'' for the orbiting facility by 1988. There is little lead time. The station is due to be operating by 1992. It is a hopeful schedule that would have the station in place to help celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the Americas.

NASA planners have a multipurpose facility in mind. The station would provide a pressurized shirt-sleeve environment in which people could work and sleep. They could carry out biological and materials research in its laboratories. They could fuel and service satellites. Many observations of Earth and the universe will be made. Other experiments and manufacturing facilities will be carried by free-flying platforms that orbit with the station or whose orbits are within its reach.

In short, it is expected to provide what NASA associate administrator Philip E. Culbertson, director of the space-station office, calls an unprecedented ``freedom of space and power'' for developing the orbital frontier.

While a permanent human crew will be essential, many station-related tasks will be carried out remotely by robots or even be fully automated. In a recent congressionally mandated report, NASA stresses the need for automation and robots. Robot spacecraft -- called orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs) -- could retrieve satellites instead of having the shuttle fetch them. OTVs could even replace satellite equipment on orbit and service unmanned space factories.

Another far-reaching technology to be developed along with the space station has the mystical-sounding name of telepresence. That means robot manipulators with TV stereo vision, other electronic senses, and dexterous arms and ``hands'' that enable remote operators to feel they are present and working at a distant site. A technician on Earth or in the space station would work with a distant satellite almost as though it were in the same room. Remote manipulators currently used to handle radioactive materials are crude forerunners of this 21st-century technology.

The space-station design is far from frozen, even in general concept. But the favored concept features what has been dubbed ``the power tower.'' The spine of the station, which would orbit 250 to 300 miles high, is a 300-foot long framework that supports the main solar power units. These are to deliver at least 75 kilowatts to begin with and later could be expanded to as much as 300 kilowatts. They may involve photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight directly to electricity, and mirror-like concentrators that focus solar heat to drive vapor-powered electric generators.

Instrument-carrying platforms would be attached to the spine, as would several laboratory, living, and supply modules. The modules would be cylinders some 60 feet long by 15 feet wide -- the dimensions of the shuttle cargo bay. Living in them would be like inhabiting an interconnecting series of airliners. Europe and Japan expect to provide two of the lab modules.

Prefabricated units will be brought up in the space shuttle's cargo bay. Larger units will be brought up piecemeal and assembled in orbit by space-suited astronauts. These workers probably will also have remote manipulators to help them.

NASA has organized its Phase-B program around four of its research centers -- Johnson in Texas, Goddard in Maryland, Lewis in Ohio, and Marshall in Alabama. Together they will oversee the work of contractors who will bring different perspectives to refining the design of space-station components and the unmanned satellite platforms that will accompany the main facility.

While the major teams are competitors, they also must share information, because NASA wants a free exchange of ideas. The biggest prizes lie ahead, however, when contracts are let for the actual hardware. These could mean $1 billion or more to a successful bidder. Many companies have sunk some of their own money into building their competence for space-station work, just to be in position to bid for future business. Thus, while they cooperate now, the spirit of long-term competition is very much alive. -- 30 --{et

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