Originally published as a 2-part series in The Elkhart Truth, Jan 31-Feb 1, 1984
Though some Americans may have been taken by surprise last week when President Reagan instructed NASA to develop a manned space station, such a facility has been contemplated almost from the beginning of the space age.
“Space stations and space platforms have been under study in NASA for over 25 years,” NASA Adminstrator James Beggs told a Senate Commerce subcommittee last November. “”In the planning for Apollo, (Werner) Von Braun urged that we go to the moon by means of an orbital station.”
Von Braun’s earth-orbital rendezvous plan was shelved because it would not allow NASA to meet President Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade deadline for a moon landing. As a consequence, the awesome Saturn V rocket became a dead-end technology.
NASA tried again at the end of the 1960s, proposing a new “”space transportation system” consisting of a reusable spacecraft and an orbiting base.
“The Space Shuttle was inextricably linked to the concept of a space station,” notes NASA’s Robert Allnutt. “”Budgetary contraints forced NASA to choose between the space station and the Shuttle.”
The choice was actually forced on NASA by President Nixon’s lukewarm response to its post-Apollo plans. Ironically, Nixon’s cancellation of moon landings beyond Apollo 17 made the hardware available for the temporary space station Skylab.
In the meantime, the USSR was deciding to use its existing Soyuz spacecraft as a space ferry to service a new orbiting facility. Since 1971, the Soviet manned space program has been oriented around a series of Salyut satellites which have housed two-man crews for up to six months at a time. Beggs calls the current Salyut 7 “”a true space station.”
According to Dr. Philip Chandler of the Office of Technology Assessment, “”the main point is that they have a long-term commitment to establish a permanent presence in space. They’ve been working at it steadily for over twelve years.”
NASA officials, the aerospace industry, and space advocacy groups such as the L-5 Society have been promoting an American space station program in earnest since the Space Shuttle successfully completed its flight test program.
The Summer, 1982 issue of the Aerospace Industries Association’s trade publication devoted half of its 16 pages to a feature entitled “”Space Station: The Next Logical Step.” Boeing, under a contract from the Johnson Space Center, had already completed preliminary studies on what it called the Space Operations Center.
When Reagan announced he would go to Edwards Air Force Base for the landing of the fourth Shuttle flight on July 4, 1982, many observers looked for a committment to “”the next logical step” at that time.
Instead, before a half-million spectators and a national television audience, Reagan delivered a speech establishing a new national space policy which called in general terms for the U.S. to maintain “”leadership” but made no specific mention of building a space station.
However, NASA had barely begun to lay the groundwork for such a decision. Its Space Station Task Force, directed by John Lodge, had only been in existance since May.
During August, 1982, NASA signed $1 million space station mission study contracts with eight companies, including Boeing, Lockheed, and shuttle orbiter manufacturer Rockwell. The purpose of the eight-month contracts was to develop “”architectural options.”
“We have assiduously avoided specific configurations to date because there’s still lots of good ideas out there and we want to make sure we understand them before we go ahead,” said Lodge.
More than 300 proposals for studies came in when NASA asked potential users of the space station to lay out their requirements. In March, 1983, eighteen of the proposals, ranging from emergency surgery in space to robotics systems, were approved for funding by the Office of Space Science and Applications.
Anticipation began to heighten in April, 1983, when Reagan directed the Senior Interagency Group for Space “”to establish the basis for an Administration decision on whether to proceed with NASA development of a permanently-based, manned space station.”
By October 1983, when Reagan invited NASA to outline a “”more visionary” plan for the future, the agency had a well-developed space station proposal to present to Congress and senior Adminsitration officials. It called for design and definition work to continue through 1986, with actual construction of the modules for a 6 to 8-man station to begin in 1987.
Actual deployment in orbit would begin in 1991, with the station operational by 1992, the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. Said Beggs, “1992 is a nice historical date.”
As the first major initiative in more than a decade, President Reagan’s call for a manned space station is certain to revive the debate over the cost of space exploits.
But this time, the debate will turn not on spinoffs such as Teflon and Tang but the exploding commercial use of the space environment.
NASA projects the cost of the initial 6 to 8 man station at $8 billion through deployment in 1991, beginning with an estimated $300 million for system definition in Fiscal Year 1985.
For that amount, the agency has promised to develop a modular, expandable structure that can meet a variety of needs.
“We’re not talking about a single entity. We’re talking about a mixture of manned and unmanned elements,” said John Lodge, director of NASA’s Space Station Task Force.
Those elements would include a “power-rich” manned base with 120 cubic meters of living space, a free-flying unmanned platform in the same east-west orbit, and a second unmanned platform in a north-south polar orbit.
“The space station really only makes sense if you plan it in an evolutionary sense, that it will grow over time, and so that it also has multiple functions,” Lodge said.
NASA Administrator James Beggs outlined those functions during a Senate hearing in November.
“Properly conceived, a station could function as a laboratory in space for the conduct of science, a permanent observatory, a tranportation node where vehicles and payloads are processed to their destinations, a servicing facility where these vehicles and payloads are maintained, an assembly facility where large structures are put together, (and) a manufacturing facility to enhance commercial opportunities in space,” Beggs testified.
Characterizing the cost of a space station as an investment rather than an expense, Beggs noted that “”the returns on our past research and development are on the order of 20 to 30 percent per annum.”
“The nation’s investment in NASA and its research program has been a little bit less than 1 percent of what the Federal government has spent over the last 25 years,” Beggs recently told the Washington Press Club. “In total terms it’s a very impressive number, $95 billion. But in President Reagan’s words, it’s been one of the best investments we’ve ever made as a nation.”
Reagan alluded to those benefits in his State of the Union message, saying “”already we’ve pushed civilization forward with our advances in science and technology. Opportunities and jobs will multiply as we cross new threshholds of knowledge and reach deeper into the unknown.”
That promise rests on the expectation that other industries, such as drug manufacturing and materials processing, will follow the communications industry into space. Beggs described satellite communications as “”the fastest growing industrial sector in our economy today.”
Firms such as Satellite Business Systems (jointly owned by Aetna, IBM and COMSAT) operate their own communications satellites, providing video, voice and data links for such industry giants as J.C. Penney and Ford Motor Co. Crowding of both the airwaves and the spaceways is expected to provide the impetus for large, multiple-antenna communications platforms constructed in space.
In the area of space manufacturing, Johnson and Johnson has reported encouraging results from an experimental zero-gravity drug separator flown on several Shuttle flights. Fairchild Space and Electronics Co. sees a large enough demand by business for access to space to justify its development of an independent unmanned space platform called Leasecraft.
Perennial skeptics such as Sen. William Proxmire remain unconvinced, citing enormous Federal budget deficits as a reason for postponing or cancelling entirely the space station project.
“I think it will have scientific fallout, I think it will have technical and engineering fallout, I think, perhaps, if we do it right, it will have economic fallout, but I don’t think it can be justified on those grounds,” Dr. Victor Weis of Space Applications, Inc. told senators in November. “It has to be justified on broader national grounds.”
But Weis warned the Congress not to be “transfixed by cost-benefit analysis. If we look at cost-benefit analysis for the Shuttle and past things in the space program, they have proven to be a very poor judge of how you should move ahead.”