An advisory committee set up by the National Research Council to review the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's plans for a permanently manned space station has been urged by Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) to "take a serious look" at an alternative plan designed by a veteran aerospace engineer with Rockwell International.
Proxmire made the appeal in a letter to Robert Seamans, former secretary of the Air Force, who chairs the 13-member panel. The research council, research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is reviewing the space station plan for NASA and the White House.
The engineer, Oliver Harwood, testified last month in Washington before the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on the NASA budget, which Proxmire chairs.
Harwood and fellow Rockwell engineers Donald E. Koch and John E. Krieter have continued to push for NASA to redesign the space station despite an official warning that they could be fired for their activities. The engineers, who have gained support both inside and outside the space agency, believe Harwood's design is far simpler than the station NASA now hopes to have in place by the middle of the next decade, and say it could be in orbit and operational with about a third the number of shuttle flights required for NASA's proposal.
They insist it could be easily modified in the future, but contend NASA has not given it serious consideration.
NASA has insisted that its design is sound and Harwood's creation is only one of many designs that the space agency looked at and rejected early in the program.
The space agency's design consists of four habitable modules, straddled by a long boom that would be used to support antennas and various experiments.
Harwood's design consists of interchangeable struts or modules that would be configured in a triangular pattern that could grow as needed with the addition of other triangles.
The space station, which is now priced at around $20 billion, has become increasingly controversial. A space station advisory committee set up by NASA recently urged that the agency redesign the station so that it could be deployed more quickly and with fewer shuttle flights. That recommendation irked NASA executives, who described the committee's chairman, Stanford University Prof. Peter Banks, as "naive." Banks subsequently resigned.
After publication of a story on the controversy in The Times, Harwood was invited by Proxmire to testify before his subcommittee. The subcommittee has no subpoena power and no funds to pay the expenses of witnesses; Harwood paid his own way to Washington.
Scores of other engineers at Rockwell have since contributed to the effort, Harwood said, and he has recovered most of the costs.
"So I know a lot of other engineers back me," he said.
In his letter to Seamans, Proxmire noted:
"If it (Harwood's design) has the cost and deployment efficiencies that Mr. Harwood claims, with the concurrence of some NASA engineers, it may be an important alternative to the current approach."
The research council's committee includes former NASA astronauts Owen Garriott and Thomas Stafford, plus several industrial leaders, including Eberhardt Rechtin, president of the Aerospace Corp. of Los Angeles, and various aerospace and research executives, including Donald B. Rice Jr., president of the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica.
The committee's findings will be used this fall in determining funding for the station.