NASA Fears Mini-Lab Might Grab Big Space Station's Place in the Sun

Times Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, when he designed a cramped, one-man capsule to carry the first American astronauts into orbit, Maxime Faget adopted a personal credo that made him the Frank Lloyd Wright among the architects of American space vehicles:

Keep it simple.

He preached it, and he lived by it.

It brought him a patent on the trailblazing, light-bulb-shaped Mercury spacecraft, the first to carry Americans into orbit. It made him a prime force behind the two-man Gemini craft, a wingless wonder that could maneuver to an ocean splashdown target because it had an ingeniously misplaced center of gravity. It put his indelible mark on the Apollo spacecraft that carried explorers to the moon, and it found expression in the sleek lines of the space shuttle.

Now, nearly five years after he retired from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, it has propelled the 66-year-old engineer into the center of a fierce debate over the shape of space policy and the future of the multi-billion-dollar U.S. space station development.

Orbiting Laboratory

Faget has designed a bus-sized orbiting laboratory, which he envisions as both an adjunct to NASA's international space station and a free-flying industrial outpost where customers will produce pharmaceuticals, semi-conductors and perfect crystals.

So attractive has Faget's space laboratory proved that NASA now fears it might provide unwelcome competition with its own space station, a football field in length. Just last month, Congress slashed $342 million from NASA's 1988 space station budget request (leaving about $425 million) and set aside $25 million for NASA to lease some facilities on the private orbiting laboratory in 1991 or 1992.

The appeal of Faget's mini-station is apparent. It could be in orbit as soon as 1991, at least six years earlier than NASA's version could be operating. And its cost, $500 million to $700 million, would be only a fraction of the $25 billion projected for the full-fledged space station.

At the outset, Faget's idea, produced by a man who is a NASA legend, got a warm reception from the government space agency. An agreement was signed for the space shuttle to deliver the mini-station to orbit and later make service calls so that astronauts could retrieve processed materials and install new equipment and experiments.

Faget's fledgling company, Space Industries Inc., it was understood, would pay nothing until it began turning a profit.

But that was before the Industrial Space Facility, as the private orbiting laboratory is called, gained enough credibility in Congress to focus attention on the space station's enduring problems. And since Congress slashed the space station's 1988 budget, the White House Economic Policy Council has taken up the issue and may this week recommend that President Reagan ask Congress to approve a five-year, $700-million lease of the entire ISF.

NASA Resisting

The lease idea is staunchly resisted by the space agency. NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher noted last week that so far, not enough business to make the mini-station commercially successful has developed.

"I'm not worried at all about its impact on the space station," Fletcher said. But he added that the lease proposal calls for "a sizable amount of money for NASA to commit in a period when money is tight. That (spending) would not occur until out in the early 1990s . . . and we don't want to commit the agency that far out in time."

The space station, plagued by escalating costs, has been in the design phase for the last three years, and its structural design underwent a major reduction before contractors were selected last month.

Facing certain budget cuts last year, NASA's space station director warned that further limitations on the plan might diminish it to a point where it was no longer worth undertaking.

It was in anticipation of the cuts that congressional staff members last fall began secretly developing a fall-back plan. The congressional order for NASA to move toward leasing a private mini-station was pressed by Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.) and Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), who chair appropriations subcommittees responsible for the NASA budget.

"The space station was and is in intensive care," said a source who participated in the congressional decision. "The feeling was, Why bet the ranch on it? Why not do something to get some interim experience and capability?

"It was not the intent of anybody involved to get into the ISF in lieu of the space station, but there are now people in the Reagan Administration who are for killing the station altogether."

19 Shuttle Flights

It is expected to take 19 flights of the space shuttle to fully assemble the space station, which will not be complete until 1997 at the earliest. The budget cut imposed by Congress in December caused a slip of about a year in the schedule, according to program manager Tom Moser. With an even more difficult round of budget cuts confronting the Administration and Congress in the coming year, it is widely expected that NASA will get less than the $1.8 billion it had wanted for the station in 1989.

It is the prospect of more delays in the station that caused Congress to order NASA to take steps toward leasing a private mini-station. It could be ready in 1991, although it will be several more months before it moves beyond the engineering drawing phase.

Faget and his associates, based in an office building in Webster, Tex., five minutes away from NASA's Johnson Space Center, say they still do not view themselves as competing with the NASA station, which is intended to give the United States a permanent presence in space.

In the words of former Apollo and shuttle astronaut Joseph P. Allen, who is executive vice president of Space Industries Inc., the private company's support of NASA's space station is "basic, unfailing, undying."

"The country will have a space station," Allen said. "In the meantime, our business niche is providing the man-tended platforms that aren't as good as the space station and can't replace the space station. They can help the country hedge a bet so that it does not get into the all-or-nothing situation that we got into with regard to space transportation."

The ISF got its start early this decade with several young "space junkies" brought together by James Calaway, a Texan just home from Oxford University, where he developed an intense interest in space exploration while studying for a master's degree in philosophy. They talked about space stations--privately financed space stations--during breakfast meetings in Houston in 1981, organized themselves into something they called the Vertical Club and eventually found their way to Faget, who was then retiring from NASA.

At the time, Calaway recently confessed, "we had never even heard of Faget. I assumed he was a foreigner. I had no idea we were dealing with the Einstein of manned spaceflight."

"We told him what we were thinking, and he said, 'That's not such a crazy idea; I've been thinking about space stations for a long time, but the government bureaucracy has gotten to be impossible.' "

Indeed, Faget had been thinking about space stations ever since the 1950s, when he joined NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, at Langley, Va.

"There's been a space station in NASA's future program ever since there's been a NASA," he said in an interview. "The agency got started in 1958, and by the next year, there were several station proposals already on the table. It had always bothered me that we could not make a station fairly simply--just do it without a lot of money--as opposed to making it a great big program."

NASA's ace designer agreed to undertake a feasibility study, with the understanding that the Vertical Club would raise $1 million for it.

It took only a few months for the concept to jell.

Faget's design was true to his old credo.

"All of us who came out of the Mercury and Gemini programs were of a mind that we wanted to do things as simply as possible," said Christopher C. Kraft, a former director of Johnson Space Center and a colleague of Faget's for 35 years.

"The space station is a very complicated thing, but what we were all shooting for, in my mind, was to get the biggest volume and the largest amount of power for the least amount of money. I think that is what Max has done. If he could, he would build the ISF a lot bigger, but in order to keep the cost down, he has kept the size down."

Had to Be Simple

Faget himself said that when he went to work with the Vertical Club, "I didn't have the vaguest idea of what I was going to do, except that whatever I did was going to be simple. I felt like complexity was totally unneeded when you are talking about something you are going to put into space and leave there.

"The whole idea was that if we are going to do something commercially, we had to make something productive with one launch. We didn't want a space station that didn't operate until two or three things got up there.

"A laboratory in space is not a very complicated thing. You can take the shuttle environmental control system, put it in a large can and pressurize it, and you have a laboratory in space."

The ISF, therefore, is designed to go into operation as soon as it is unloaded in orbit by the shuttle.

Inside the laboratory, equipment for experiments, powered by electricity generated from solar panels, is operated from Earth. Astronauts would go aboard perhaps two or three times a year, spending a day or more installing, servicing and changing experimental equipment.

In a further design step to cut costs, the mini-station does not have an environmental control system. While the shuttle was docked at the station, its life support system would sustain the astronauts inside the laboratory. At the same time, the shuttle's fuel cells would be shut off and the shuttle would be powered by the ISF's big solar electric panels.

For experiments and production tasks unusually sensitive to motion or gravity, the laboratory promises a quieter environment than a manned space station. In orbit at an altitude of 200 miles, the ISF could drift in free flight for months without its compressed air or steam maneuvering jets ever being used.

Beyond the primary on-board research and production, Faget sees the laboratory as employed in other ways that would complement both the shuttle and NASA's space station.

An ISF module could be used as a "construction shack" in orbit during assembly of the space station, with astronauts storing space suits and tools aboard it rather than hauling them back and forth between Earth and the station.

The duration of shuttle missions, Allen said, could be doubled by the simple expedient of docking with the ISF and using it as a power station.

Cheaper Operation

Although it is considered feasible to dock the ISF with the space station, Faget now envisions its flying in orbit close to the station. Once the station is in full operation, he said, a small taxi could shuttle scientists to the ISF, making its operation far cheaper than it would be with exclusive servicing by the shuttle.

Since Faget's first meeting with the Vertical Club at the Inn on the Park in Houston, the design effort on the mini-space station has come to involve 140 engineers, including his friend Caldwell Johnson, who has been reducing Faget's ideas to drawings since the late 1950s.

The Boeing Co., selected last month as one of the prime contractors for the space station, and Westinghouse Corp. joined Space Industries in a partnership, which has now invested about $30 million in the bus-sized orbiting laboratory project.

Despite all their efforts to sign up commercial customers, Faget and his associates still do not have their first contract in hand, and Allen concedes that the government will have to be a major customer for ISF to succeed.

"About one-third of our business will be industrial and the remaining two-thirds must be government-purchased services," he said. "Some could be for government research and development, some for technology testing, some for military use."

With Canada, and tentatively Japan and the European Space Organization as partners in the NASA space station, sensitive military research, such as "Star Wars" payloads, could fall to the privately owned mini-station.

The Reagan Administration's decision on the $700-million lease may not come until a space policy statement to be made shortly after the President's State of the Union message, scheduled for Jan. 25.

In the meantime, lines are already sharply drawn within an Administration that is still seeking to put more of the American space program in private hands.

With the Challenger explosion, the Administration, led by the Transportation Department, moved to transfer the commercial satellite-launching business from NASA to private industry.

According to congressional sources, it was the Commerce Department that pushed forward the idea of leasing the Faget mini-station over NASA's objection.

"What the people on Capitol Hill wanted to do was lease a portion of the ISF," said a congressional source who took part in the discussion. "It was the Commerce Department that had the idea of leasing the whole thing. . . .

"The problem is that there is no commercial market out there, and the ISF is not going to happen without a huge contribution of government support."

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