Space stations for hire? They're not so far away
For both the United States space agency and the US space industry, the next major goal is a permanently manned space station. Already, one company, McDonnell Douglas Astronautics, is developing an automated factory for making pharmaceuticals on orbit. It hopes to have a robot satellite working by 1987. But it would like to shift over to a space station where human beings can service the unit within a decade.
Meanwhile, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has pulled together eight contractor studies plus its own analyses to outline a space station's commercial potential. NASA would like to have the first station in use around 1991.
Thus the 1990s will likely be a decade of transition from the ''start-up'' era of commercial use of space - which meant mainly communications satellites - to the 21st century, when commercialization will revolve around space stations.
This vision set the perspective for a session on space commercialization at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Detroit.
David W. Richman of McDonnell Douglas explained why he thinks a space station would open a new commercial dimension.
The orbital factory his company is developing uses electrophoresis to make pharmaceutical products. This is a process that uses electrical force to separate chemicals mixed together in a solution. On Earth, gravity severely limits both the yield and the purity of products separated out of a solution this way. Through experiments carried on the space shuttle, Richman's team has already shown that both yields and purity can be enhanced several hundred percent in the gravity-free conditions on orbit.
The process appears to have great commercial potential, Richman says. Yet he points out that developing it through intermittent shuttle flights is slow. It is taking from 1982 to 1987 or even 1989 to get a robot orbiting factory into commercial production. At that rate, Richman said, his company foresees developing only about three commercial products by the year 2000. But if the development could be carried out on a space station, he estimates that five times as many new products could be developed by the century's end.
Likewise, he adds, refitting the robot factory for a new process is costly and time-consuming if the satellite must be brought to Earth by the shuttle and then put back in orbit. This could be done much more efficiently if the factory were aboard a space station, or orbiting nearby, where the crew (including perhaps McDonnell Douglas personnel) could overhaul it. The crew could also do routine maintenance.
Brian Pritchard, manager of NASA'S Space Station Task Force, calls the McDonnell Douglas electrophoresis work ''the first real success in terms of commercial adventures in space.'' But the advantages Richman sees in a space station are only part of what NASA has in mind. Pritchard envisions the station both as a center of action in its own right and as a major node in a new kind of space transportation system.
While the station itself would contain much equipment, other equipment, such as Richman's robot factory, would be on unmanned satellites within easy orbital reach. These satellites could be serviced, or even replaced, by the station crew , which would have space parts on hand. The crew would have ''mobility units'' - rocket-powered spacesuits or small ships - for this work.
While NASA hopes to provide the first manned station as early as 1991, Pritchard said the agency doesn't want to be in the space station business. He hopes private industry will provide future stations for commercial purposes. He said his group believes firmly in the commercial potential of space. It has identified at least 31 various mission opportunities for the 1990s in analyses he described as ''pragmatic.''
Whether, or to what extent, industry will be enticed is uncertain. Pritchard said more than 80 companies have expressed interest. But few are willing to commit themselves this far in advance.
Meanwhile, the Reagan administration is making it easier for industry to get into space. Last month it announced that private companies can soon lease NASA facilities, including launch pads, and buy surplus rockets and spare parts. One enterprise, Space Transportation Company, is negotiating with NASA to operate or buy a shuttle.
Can a privately owned space station be far behind?