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

January 17, 1988|RUDY ABRAMSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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."

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