When the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from Florida this week, it will inaugurate the first manned mission controlled by a country other than the United States or the Soviet Union.
The Challenger, set to blast off from the Kennedy Space Center at noon Wednesday, will carry three European scientists on the fourth flight of Spacelab, a research facility that fits into the cargo bay of the shuttle. It was built by the European Space Agency and donated to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Although operational control of the Challenger will remain with NASA'S Johnson Space Center in Houston, German scientists and technicians will man Spacelab's controls at the German Space Operations Centre near Munich.
Two Years in Development
The complicated agreement, more than two years in development, means that NASA will run the shuttle but Germany will operate the experiments, which will dictate operations of the spacecraft.
Space officials in Europe hope that the mission will help defuse a persistent controversy among some European scientists who see Spacelab as a $1-billion giveaway.
The scientific module is one of the premier tools of space research today, and it has provided scientists with the means to conduct experiments ranging from the effects of weightlessness on the human body to the properties of molten metals in near-zero gravity.
"We gave this Spacelab to NASA," said Jacqueline Gomerieux, spokeswoman for the European Space Agency, based in Paris.
The gift caused some resentment within the European scientific community, according to widely published reports here, because Europe is struggling to develop its own aggressive space program. That effort has enjoyed considerable success, most notably through the European Space Agency's Ariane rocket system, which has lured hundreds of millions of dollars in satellite launching fees away from NASA.
But many of the 11 nations that make up the agency have been forced by economic constraints to cut back some scientific programs to support glamorous projects such as space exploration.
Test of Cooperative Effort
That, in turn, has led some scientists to question the justification of building a sophisticated laboratory and then donating it to the Americans. European officials hope that this flight of the shuttle will prove that the effort was not a bad idea.
The controversy irks Hans-Ulrich Steimle, who will direct the flight for the German space agency, known formally as the Federal German Aerospace Research Establishment. Steimle said in an interview that rather than being regarded as a "gift" to NASA, Europeans should look upon Spacelab as "our share of a long-lasting, cooperative effort" in manned exploration of space.
Steimle said Spacelab grew out of a 1973 agreement between NASA and the European Space Agency.
"We wanted to participate in the post-Apollo program," he said. "So we decided to develop Spacelab to give us a chance to participate in manned space flight."
He said Germany, which paid 54% of the cost of building Spacelab, and all of Europe "have benefited very much" from the project. He said the alternative would have been to have left manned space flight up to the United States and the Soviet Union, but Spacelab has given the Europeans a real share in the effort.
German on First Flight
Spacelab flew for the first time in November, 1983, and one of the crewmen aboard the shuttle for that flight was Ulf Merbold, a German physicist and the first person to fly aboard an American spacecraft who was not a citizen of the United States.
The German space agency paid NASA $70 million for this flight, the fee that the U.S. agency charges anyone who wants to control an entire mission. Thus, the United States is chartering the shuttle to Germany, which will use it to fly a European laboratory.
The Challenger will carry a record crew of eight, including West German scientists Richard Furrer and Ernst Messerschmid, and Wubbo Ockels of the Netherlands, a European Space Agency astronaut. Other crewmen include American astronauts Henry W. Hartsfield, the mission commander; Steven R. Nagel and James F. Buchli, pilots; and Guion S. Bluford and Bonnie J. Bunbar.
Steimle said that, of the 76 experiments aboard the flight, 74 will involve studying the effects of weightlessness on crewmen and materials. The experiments will include melting and resolidifying metals to examine the role gravity plays in forming solids, growing crystals for potential use in electronics, and studying how fluids and chemicals behave in space.
Factories in Space
Much of the work is being supported by several West German companies that are considering manufacturing substances in space. High on that list of potential uses is development of sophisticated alloys and metals away from the distorting influence of gravity.
That is an area of particular interest to several German firms. Burton I. Edelson, science director for NASA, said during a recent tour of Europe that West Germany is the world leader in that field.
Americans accustomed to seeing extensive television coverage of activities aboard the shuttle may be in for a slight disappointment during this flight. Because of the vast amount of scientific data expected to be generated by the experiments, much of the time usually used to transmit television pictures via satellite will instead be used to "dump" data to the ground, Steimle said.
This will be a seven-day flight for the Challenger, which is scheduled to land at 9:32 a.m. Nov. 6 at Edwards Air Force Base.