THE crew of the shuttle Endeavour has settled in for nine days of satellite-fetching, space walks, science, and a game of Go.
The first shuttle trip of 1996 ''is a very ambitious mission,'' says Bryan Austin, the lead flight director for Endeavour's 10th launch into space. ''All in all, we're taking on a lot of everything.''
Many of the mission's goals are related to the international space station project, whose first components are scheduled for launch in November and December of 1997.
Endeavour's primary task is to retrieve the Space Flyer Unit (SFU), a science satellite that Japan's National Space Development Agency launched last March. Specifically designed for return on the shuttle, the four-ton, reusable spacecraft carries seven projects ranging from an infrared telescope, crystal-growth experiments, and an experiment with newt eggs, to a prototype for an exotic satellite thruster. Using the infrared telescope, for example, astronomers have been observing the background radiation left over from the Big Bang, which formed the universe. They've also been trying to determine the origin of dust and gas found between stars.
NASDA astronaut Koichi Wakata, a mission specialist on this flight, will use the shuttle's remote manipulator arm to pluck the satellite from orbit and tuck it in the payload bay. He also will release and later retrieve an American science package during the mission.
But the SFU's larger role has been as a catalyst for closer ties between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and NASDA in preparation for international Space Station Alpha, to which Japan is a partner. NASA has developed close operational links with other space-station partners, such as Russia and the European Space Agency, through projects like the shuttle-Mir rendezvous missions and the US-European Spacelab.
''This a first for us in terms of working closely with the Japanese,'' says Col. Brian Duffy, the mission's commander.
During the course of the mission, astronauts will conduct two 6-1/2-hour space walks to test hardware, tools, and construction techniques that will be used to build the space station.
''To date, this is the most extensive hardware evaluation that we will have done for the space-station program,'' says Leroy Chiao, who will take part in both space walks. The crew will be testing tethering systems, cables and connectors designed to carry electricity and fluids, and modifications to space suits designed to improve their ability to keep astronauts warmer than past suits. During a preflight press conference, Capt. Winston Scott, who will test the new suit, wryly noted the irony of a Florida native spending 30 minutes in temperatures of -100 degrees F.
Yet even as the astronauts begin their tests, the shape of the international space station itself is once again under debate. During the first year of station construction, Russia is responsible for seven of 12 planned launches to support the effort. Last month, pleading financial hardship, Russian space officials proposed that NASA use Mir as the core of the international space station. The Russians argued that they don't have the money to live up to their launch commitments to the international space station as well as to their own orbiting lab. In addition, several Mir modules are relatively new and would have to be shut down before the end of their design life once Space Station Alpha is activated. Russian Space Agency officials said they would have a hard time explaining to their parliament and public why they were shutting down a working space station to help build another one.
After six days of meetings just before Christmas, NASA reportedly made a counteroffer designed to trim the number of Russian launches during the first year. In addition, the agency is weighing an extension of joint research projects on Mir, with the US picking up the tab for those projects. Russia is considering the counteroffer.