The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) wants dearly to build a manned, orbiting space station. But it isn't satisfied with past suggestions on the kinds of research that could be performed on it.
So NASA recently issued a challenge to the nation's current crop of budding Thomas Edisons to provide the agency with some fresh, creative ideas. And students here at the University of Colorado (CU) have eagerly taken up the gauntlet. Their work has won the praise of some of NASA's own astronauts.
The students, after nine days of intensive, extracurricular brainstorming, came up with the idea of constructing four separate space ''laboratories,'' which could be carried into orbit in the bay of the space shuttle and joined to the core of a space station. The four modular labs they will propose to NASA include:
* A space manufacturing laboratory equipped with several ovens for exploring the potential benefits of making metals and electronic parts in zero gravity. Small-scale experiments conducted during the Skylab mission suggest that materials such as strong but very light metals and exceptionally round ball bearings could be manufactured in space. Also, crystals of the sort used in electronics and solar cells can be grown with extreme purity, and to exceptional sizes, when fabricated free of gravity.
* A remote sensing observatory, which would include both earthward-looking instruments for monitoring resources and weather and astronomical instruments for scanning other planets and the stars.
* A space physics laboratory to enable orbiting scientists to conduct various basic physics experiments, including a test of Einstein's theory of relativity.
* A space biomedical laboratory equipped to study the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body and to explore methods of producing certain pharmaceuticals in space, something that interests a number of drug companies.
Last week, representatives of four student teams presented some preliminary ideas to a panel of visiting astronauts. The astronauts - Scott Carpenter, Vance Brand, John M. Lounge, and Ellison S. Onizuka - are all alumni of CU and had returned to take part in CU's ''Space Days'' celebration. With six astronaut graduates and a research satellite designed and operated by CU, the university has played an active role in the nation's space program.
The astronauts led with some gentle questioning, mostly concerning matters of weight and space utilization. They went on to suggest that the experiments to be conducted in these space laboratories needed more precise definition. The students were complimented on their efforts, however, and the NASA panelists said they looked ahead with interest to the results of more detailed studies.
''These are super ideas,'' astronaut Onizuka commented, adding that it would be a good idea for the students to investigate the work that NASA is doing in these areas as they begin the more detailed design work.
''With the lab concept, I think the students have come up with a valuable new idea,'' says Elaine R. Hansen, mission director for the CU satellite and supervisor of the students. The ideas NASA has been getting for the space station are predominantly single-purpose, remotely operated instruments, she explains. Space laboratories would allow greater flexibility to attack a large number of problems, she argues.
All told, Ms. Hansen says she has received over 60 good ideas from as many students. Some of them even proposed a more ambitious design for the space station itself, making it bigger and more habitable by utilizing some of the fuel tanks which the shuttles discard in orbit.
Even if NASA does not decide to incorporate any of these ideas, CU chancellor Harrison Shull sees real value in such efforts. They are a concrete example of how ''the frontier of space is an inspiration to the young of heart of all ages'' and how the space program is inspiring many students to study scientific and technological subjects which are so essential to our modern society, he says.
Today's challenge in space, summarizes Kent Tobiska, an aerospace engineering graduate student, ''is to lay the groundwork for major advances in space physics and engineering, to help solve major human problems such as providing energy and essential resources, and to provide a peaceful arena for international competition, rather than the alternative, which is war.''