Ask Joseph Loftus what America should do in space, and he shoots back, ``Exploit it!'' Exploit it, he says, ``in such a way that we can develop really significant industrial and commercial activity.''
Others at the Johnson Space Center talk of NASA's proposed space station. Mr. Loftus dreams of ``industrial parks'' in the sky.
As the center's assistant director for planning, he is paid to take the long view. But in this case, he is not just thinking of 21st-century commerce. In his office overlooking the center's parklike complex, he explains how the metaphor sharpens his sense of industry's orbital role.
``There's a tendency to equate the launch business with the space business. And that's not right,'' he says. ``The space business is what takes place in space.'' He compares space transportation to the interstate highways -- a system that private enterprise cannot supply. He compares a space station to ``the industrial park that is at the [highway] intersection.'' That ``is the kind of thing private enterprise does well.''
His perception goes to the core of the controversy over NASA's commercial launch services. Some White House advisers want NASA to phase out those services. The Air Force wants this, too. They argue it would encourage the growth of a private American launch industry. It would also free shuttle space for military and scientific cargo. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration strenuously resists the suggestion. But President Reagan was expected to rule against the agency at this writing.
This probably would not encourage private rocketeers. Space agency officials say that no one has yet come up with a proposal that avoids the need for heavy federal subsidy to meet heavily subsidized foreign competition.
Many observers agree with Loftus that the best opportunities for private enterprise will be found in space, not on the launch pad. In the beginning, at least, entrepreneurs will probably favor materials processing. Ultra-pure crystals for electronic uses, certain refined medicines, and other high-value, low-volume products may be made far more readily under gravity-free conditions than on Earth.
Frederick Engstrim of the European Space Agency (ESA) calls microgravity manufacturing ``a virgin field [that] may turn out to be the promised land.'' Carl Shelly, NASA's space station manager for customer service, reports that industry's interest in the station is ``90 percent materials processing. That seems to be true for the US industry as well as for the foreign industry.''
It could be the catalyst that widens the horizon for space enterprise generally. Loftus explains: ``If [materials processing] is really as significant as many think, then we're going to have people who want to do significant industrial manufacturing in space. And the minute you have that kind of situation, you're going to have a proliferation of commercial kinds of private activities. . . . There will be people who will furnish services. . . . You'll see the whole thing, the whole spectrum of private activity.''
Right now, that's a statement of faith. A task force of the Business-Higher Education Forum -- an organization of 87 business and academic chief executives -- has studied space industry prospects. Its report -- Space: America's New Competitive Frontier -- was released in April. It warns that ``the technical knowledge base for materials processing in space is now almost nonexistent and must be expanded before meaningful assessments of commercial potential can be made.'' It adds, ``The principal value of space to manufacturers now is, and may continue to be for some time, the microgravity research environment.''
That means a space station -- Loftus's industrial park -- where a company can explore the new competitive frontier in the privacy of its own work space. ``The importance of the space station in research is that it will allow long-term, low-gravity laboratory work . . . rather than the very brief, infrequent, and totally preplanned experimental opportunities possible to date,'' the forum report says.
It also emphasizes that, at least in the beginning, this research ``will require extensive human presence.'' Thus, while Space Industries Inc. is proposing to orbit an unmanned shuttle-tended station, industry needs NASA's manned space station as well. Space Industry's facility would be like an office building in the sky. It would provide basic services within a basic structure in which companies could rent and furnish their own space. Loftus calls this ``a very viable commercial enterprise'' at this time. The manned station would be beyond commercial means, although companies and consortia may have facilities associated with it.
When, and if, such research does identify opportunities, companies still may not find orbital production worthwhile unless space transportation costs come down. That means cutting the shuttle price of several thousand dollars a pound by 10 to 100 times. The forum judges this ``will be a key issue in future space development.''
Thus the future of business enterprise in space is inseparable from NASA's fate. The Business-Higher Education Forum reflects a consensus among space experts when it fingers drastically lower launch costs and orbital research facilities as key commercial factors. NASA considers them to be essential for US space capability in general. And the presidential National Commission on Space says America cannot maintain its space leadership without them.
Yet the United States cannot have these things without investing more in its space program than it has been willing to spend since the Apollo moon expeditions.
As the National Academy of Sciences has recently noted, NASA's yearly budget has remained almost constant at about $7.5 billion (1986 dollars) since 1974. That limited funding cannot simultaneously accommodate a replacement shuttle, a space station, a new unmanned launch rocket fleet, encouragement of private enterprise, a vigorous scientific program, and service for the military -- to say nothing of NASA's aeronautical research. The academy explains that America's space effort is suffering because the country has ``tried to attain a level of activity well above the limit set by the means that have effectively been available.'' The administration and Congress must either put more resources into that effort or trim back US space ambitions, the academy warns.
The Business-Higher Education Forum report makes the same point. But it acknowledges the difficulty of boosting NASA's budget in this deficit-ridden era. Nevertheless, it finds it ``ironic that the nation that has made the greatest contribution of space technology to the world should now be in danger of losing that lead as well.''
Fourth of 10 articles. Next: Military and the shuttle.