THE flight of space shuttle Discovery - the first shuttle mission of the year - opens a new era of space cooperation.
For the first time ever, a Russian cosmonaut goes on orbit as a regular member of an American spacecraft crew.
The presence of Cosmonaut Sergie Krikalev on board Discovery symbolizes the start of a transition from the arms-length Russian-American space cooperation of yesterday to the full working partnership both countries hope for tomorrow. It foreshadows the first mission, around June next year, when an American astronaut will serve on board the Russian Mir space station.
This evolving togetherness is expected to culminate in the work of astronaut-cosmonaut teams in building what now is regarded as a fully international space station starting in 1997.
At press time, Discovery was ready for its scheduled launch Feb. 3. Besides Cosmonaut Krikalev, four astronauts make up the crew for this eight-day mission under command of Astronaut Charles Bolden.
If it were not for the overshadowing aura of the Russian connection, this mission would be notable for the ambitious industrial experiment it is to carry out. This aims to use the ultra-hard vacuum of near-earth space to produce high-value semiconductor material.
For this purpose, Discovery will deploy a Wake Shield Facility (WSF) developed by the Space Vacuum Epitaxi Center at the University of Houston, one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Centers for the Commercial Development of Space. The 1,683-kilogram (3,710-pound satellite) has a 3.7-meter (12-foot) platform that acts as a shield to detect the few stray atoms it may encounter while trailing Discovery on its 350-kilometer-high (220-mile) orbit.
Alex Ignatiev, director of the University of Houston center, says that vacuum at orbital height is 10,000 times better than the best vacuum chamber on the ground. His team expects to grow ultra-pure thin films of gallium arsenide on substrates.
This is a shakedown cruise for the WSF satellite. It will be further developed and tested on future shuttle missions. A full-scale facility that would remain in orbit and be serviced by astronauts could produce 10 million gallium arsenide wafers a year, according to the WSF team's estimate. So far, however, commercial semiconductor researchers are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward this novel experiment. Dr. Ignatiev has admitted that they want to see a sample of what his satellite can do before making any substantial commitment to its development.
Even this experiment has some of the mission's Russian-American flavor. Recovering the WSF on the fifth day of the mission, using the shuttle's manipulator arm, will be one of Krikalev's main duties.
Discovery's other major payload is the Spacehab commercial laboratory carried in the cargo bay. It is packed with experiments the astronauts will manage. Spacehab, Inc., of Arlington, Va., has developed the laboratory with the help of NASA funding. However, cash-strapped NASA isn't a big enough customer to make Spacehab commercially viable. Its ultimate success depends on finding additional customers, especially overseas.
Meanwhile, back at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fl, technicians are preparing the shuttle Columbia for a 14-day mission of materials science and technology experiments, now set for a March 3 launch. Six other missions fill out the 1994 shuttle schedule.
* Endeavour: A nine-day flight carrying an Earth resources imaging radar. Launch April 7.
* Columbia: Thirteen-day mission with the Spacelab research laboratory in the cargo bay. The European Space Agency will have experiments on board. Launch July 8.
* Endeavour: Nine-day mission again carrying the Earth resources imaging radar. Launch Aug. 18.
* Discovery: Nine-day mission to deploy a recoverable satellite for solar physics research and test atmospheric science sensors. Launch Sept. 9.
* Atlantis: nine-day flight with the ATLAS-3 atmospheric observatory including a retrievable infrared telescope satellite. There is heavy European participation in these experiments. European Space Agency astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy will be on the crew. Launch Oct. 27.
* Columbia: Second flight of the ASTRO astronomical observatory for 13 days. Launch Dec. 1.