Mir Mission: 'Trowel Test' For Constructing Space Lab

WHEN NASA designed the embroidered patch for the crew of Atlantis's current flight, it included the sun, the Earth, and some nice hardware. It probably should have added a hard hat.

For the first time, an orbiter has been used on a space-station construction project - installing on the Russian space station Mir a 15-foot-long tunnel designed to make future shuttle dockings easier and safer.

The installation represents the most elaborate test of NASA's construction techniques in space thus far, adding a new dimension to the shuttle's proven ability as a high-tech pickup. The addition to Mir is laying the foundation for the international Space Station Alpha, scheduled to begin assemby in 1997. The partners for Space Station Alpha include the United States, the European Space Agency, Canada, Russia, and Japan.

For now, with the docking and handshakes behind them, crew members at the construction site are resupplying Mir with food, water, and scientific equipment that will remain after the shuttle leaves. Two new solar panels for Mir were stored on the outside of the docking module. Mir crew members will don space suits and install the panels after Atlantis leaves.

The two crews also are working on experiments - ranging from the hygienic to the high tech - that will feed information to engineers designing Space Station Alpha.

Indeed, the installation of the docking module was a test run for building the space station. One of the tools being tested is the space vision system, a virtual-reality system for closely monitoring efforts to join components in space.

''If you can imagine trying to build two things that are 100 feet away from you, trying to get a perfect alignment between the two becomes nearly impossible,'' explains Canadian Chris Hadfield, who prepared the docking module for installation. ''We're flying for the first time operationally a system that can look at target arrays on two different structures, do the math inside the computers on board, and present us with a virtual-reality display that moves your eye exactly where you would want it to be to build these two structures.''

Other experiments include collecting water samples from Mir. Designers want to analyze the chemical and bacteria content of the water to help them develop better water-purification units for Space Station Alpha. During the three-day Atlantis-Mir linkup, Atlantis's thrusters will control Mir's position in space, allowing engineers to study the effects of gravity, rocket firings, and other forces on the orbiting complex. In addition, crew members will measure noise levels in various sections of Mir to help designers reduce the racket that on-board systems can generate. And to reduce clutter, the crews will be testing a new computer network that connects terminals with radio signals instead of cables.

This week's mission, the last shuttle flight for 1995, caps a year that saw the international space-station program make important strides, particularly within the past three months.

Some of the biggest hurdles cleared have been political. The European Space Agency, one of the project's five partners, has emerged from six years of uncertainty about its participation. In October, ministers from ESA's 14 member states agreed to finance the agency's participation in the international space station. The ministers agreed to spend about $3.9 billion between 1996 and 2004. The money would be spent on a live-in laboratory to be added to the station in 2002, a cargo vehicle that would be launched atop ESA's Arianne 5 booster, and a feasibility study for a crew-transfer vehicle. At the same time, the agency will lay off about 12 percent of its workforce and freeze its space-science program.

In the US, when the new federal budget finally clears Congress and the White House, it will include several billion for the space station. The exact amount depends on the whether House Science Committee chairman Robert Walker (R) of Pennsylvania gets the seven-year budget he's looking for, or whether the Senate, which authorized the program for only one year, wins out in a conference committee.

Last month, Boeing completed assembling the main structural components of the US laboratory module, which will form the core of the new space station.

Meanwhile, NASA scored a coup of sorts in September, when it and the Department of Energy jointly announced that Nobel prizewinning physicist Samuel C.C. Ting of MIT would use Alpha as a platform for a major astrophysics experiment. Space-station critics long have held that the space station is about engineering, not about science.

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