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NASA Plan's Critics Seek Smaller Module

PASADENA, CALIF—NASA's current plans for a space station are being challenged by advocates of a smaller station, more useful to scientists, that could be built more quickly and with fewer shuttle flights. This opposition has crystallized in recent weeks around two embattled figures: Peter Banks, the former chairman of NASA's task force on scientific uses of the space station, and Oliver P. Harwood, a senior engineer at Rockwell International. Banks, director of Stanford University's Space

By | June 1, 1987

PASADENA, CALIF—NASA's current plans for a space station are being challenged by advocates of a smaller station, more useful to scientists, that could be built more quickly and with fewer shuttle flights.

This opposition has crystallized in recent weeks around two embattled figures: Peter Banks, the former chairman of NASA's task force on scientific uses of the space station, and Oliver P. Harwood, a senior engineer at Rockwell International. Banks, director of Stanford University's Space Telecommunications Laboratory, resigned this spring as head of the 30-member task force after NASA rejected his panel's recommendations for changes in the space station. Harwood, who has been formally reprimanded by top officials of the billion-dollar defense and space contractor for stating his views, testified May 20 before a Senate committee looking into industrial uses of the space station.

Based on NASA briefings that suggested the possibility of obtaining a heavy-lift launch vehicle, Banks proposed an interim space station similar in size and capability to the Skylab station of the 1970s. "A large, well-appointed space station that appears in 1995 or 1996 won't be nearly as important [to science] as smaller, more flexible elements put into operation earlier," he said.

In response to Banks' report, Andrew Stofan, project director for the space station, said the idea was "not realizable." A heavy-lift vehicle "didn't exist," Stofan wrote, and a Skylab-sized station was inconsistent with NASA's plans.

"Stofan did not say anything about the essential point: the necessity of addressing the immediate needs of the users, including the space science community," Banks said. "The emphasis is on building something, not on meeting those near-term needs."

The members of the NASA task force, drawn largely from the space sciences community, modified their initial skepticism about the scientific value of the space station as NASA refined the concept over the past several years. NASA hoped to build the station in three years, with 32 shuttle flights.

But the Challenger disaster invalidated those assumptions. A report last fall by the National Academy of Engineering estimated that a fleet of four orbiters could make no more than a dozen flights a year. NASA said such a schedule would leave only five flights a year to build the space station.

Rockwell's Harwood shares Banks' wish for the station to play a role in the short term. His space station would be a tetrahedral lattice, a three-dimensional array with elements of equal length joined at 60-degree angles instead of the rectangular design, centered around two long booms, that characterizes NASA's current plans.

Harwood told Proxmire's appropriations subcommittee that such a station could begin operations after as few as four shuttle flights. The station could be made larger and more complex with equipment and instruments brought up on subsequent flights, he added.

Harwood first described the concept in the July 1985 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. On April 28 of this year, two days after an article on the subject appeared in the Los Angeles Times, he received a written reprimand from a Rockwell vice president. Despite the company's reaction, he has not softened his challenge to NASA's design for the space station, a portion of which Rockwell hopes to build.

"You would think that, as a result of the Challenger accident and the reduction in lift capacity, [NASA] might be looking for something new," he said.

Heppenheimer is a science writer and former aerospace engineer.

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