WASHINGTON—Experimenters starved for spaceflight opportunities may find all the lab space they need in Earth orbit if a small Colorado company is able to turn the space shuttle's giant external fuel tanks into privately owned orbiting science facilities.

Next week a group of 40 scientists, government officials and engineers will attend a closed workshop in Boulder to take a first crack at defining science requirements for the "Labitat," as the External Tank Company (ETCO) has labeled its proposed facility. The meeting is sponsored by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)—a consortium of 55 universities that owns 80 percent of ETCO's stock—NASA and several other cosponsors, including Martin Marietta, which builds the shuttle fuel tanks.

Although the idea of salvaging the tanks was first proposed many years ago, NASA had never expressed any particular interest in pursuing it—in part because no one had shown any clear use for a tank,...

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