West Germany aims to become a world leader in operating a station in space even though it must continue to rely on the United States for transportation there and back. The five-day Deutschland 1 (D-1) space mission, scheduled to return to earth today, was the first time that the US's National Aeronautics and Space Administration has chartered its space shuttle to a single non-American user.
The West Germans intend to continue using the US shuttle as a taxi for several years to lift into orbit their manned laboratories as well as unmanned, free-flying observation, research and, eventually, manufacturing platforms.
Bonn's interest in building space launchers faded rapidly after a ``European rocket'' project for which the West Germans built the third stage during the 1960s failed to put a single satellite into orbit.
The embarrassment was heightened by the fact that Germans had been the fathers of today's rocket programs, both in the US and the Soviet Union. Both nations induced or co-opted German rocket specialists at the end of World War II. Best known was Werner von Braun, who surrendered himself and his team to the US.
This meant that West Germany lacked experts in rocketry. But it still had, and was busy training, many more experts in space technology.
Initially, West Germany paid the US and France to launch small, purely German research satellites. In 1974 and 1976, it carried out its hitherto largest bilateral project -- Helios -- with the US, sending two research satellites around the sun.
The Spacelab the West Germans leased this time was built in West Germany for NASA, and flew for the first time on a US mission two years ago.
The West Germans are the leaders of the European Columbus project -- a manned space hotel and workshop to be attached to the US space station that President Reagan announced earlier this year will be built in the mid-1990s.
At the same time, the West Germans will participate in the French-led project to develop a European Ariane 5 launcher. Heinz Riesenhuber, minister for research and technology, has said the launcher should be suitable to lift freight to German stations already in orbit, but will lack the redundancy or back-up systems to make it safe enough to lift human crews, too. He has shown little interest so far in a French proposal to build a space glider called Hermes, saying he prefers instead to use the American
systems already available.
The D-1 mission carried more than 70 scientific experiments, ranging from seed and plant development to the mixing of alloys such as aluminium and lead, or manganese and bismuth, neither of which mixture is possible on earth. The former mixture, if achieved, probably would make the world's best slide bearing, and the latter an unusually strong magnet.
At least as many but probably more experiments will go up in the D-2 mission for which the West Germans already have chartered the US space shuttle for Sept. 1988. Twelve West German universities and several research institutes and industrial firms put the experiments together.
Mr. Riesenhuber's ministry sees great opportunities for West German industry in the development of large observatories and research laboratories that could be left in orbit for long periods of time, perhaps permanently. The Columbus space module, he says, could be detached from the main space station or stations to move a crew to the free-flying laboratories and platforms for repair, resupply, or expansion.
Such work would require the use of robots, but these in turn would have to be supervised by human crews, Risenhuber says. Even so, this would be much less expensive than the present system of retrieving observatories and platforms and returning them to earth and would also permit longer experiments and observations.
The West German government has already earmarked about 875 million marks (about $330 million) for space projects in 1986. This amount is expected to increase to about 1.4 billion marks per year by the end of the decade.
Industrial firms involved in the D-1 and D-2 programs recently organized companies which offer to carry out projects in space for others.