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Introduction The potential of the microgravity environment of space for productive research into the behavior of materials, thermal and fluid processes, and living organisms has been recognized for two decades. Microgravity research in the United States began in the late 1960s during the Apollo program. The Soviet Union initiated a microgravity research program during the 1970s, and Europe, Japan, and China have followed suit in this decade. There is little disagreement that research in a microgravity environment can produce scientific results of considerable interest in a variety of disciplines. More controversial is the suggestion that some of these results can be applied to the development of products or processes with significant economic payoffs, but there are enough indications that such could be the case to have attracted considerable attention in all countries active in microgravity research. For example, a committee of the National Research Council (NRC) as long ago as 1978 concluded that "there is opportunity for meaningful science and technology (related to materials processing) developed from experiments in space," although it did not discover "any examples of economically justifiable processes for producing materials in space." A decade later, another committee of the NRC characterized the microgravity environment as "unique" and "valuable," and recommended that it should "be considered primarily as a tool for research and secondarily as a manufacturing site," since "significant demands for manufacturing opportunities are unlikely in the near term." This committee also noted that access to the microgravity environment for research purposes is "presently available to U.S. investigators only through resources provided by NASA." Until recently NASA had not been effective in providing adequate access for researchers to the microgravity environment. A 1987 internal NASA review of the agency's microgravity materials science program
concluded that the "lack of flight opportunities is impeding scientific and commercial progress," noting that "without flight opportunities, this research field can neither acquire the scientific foundation to attract and involve a community of first-class researchers, nor develop the results which are necessary to demonstrate realistically whether private investment in potential commercial opportunities poses an acceptable risk." This critical assessment assumed that the planned Space Station Freedom would provide the long-duration, adequately powered facilities required for a substantial program of microgravity research once it becomes available in the late 1990s. It also commented that NASA's "currently defined flight opportunities for the period prior to construction of the U.S. Space Station are not adequate.... to create a foundation for a vigorous, broad-based program." Over the past 18 months, NASA has responded to the recommendations of its Microgravity Materials Science Assessment Task Force and to other suggestions for improving U.S. activities in microgravity research by significant budgetary enhancements and increased flight opportunities aboard the Space Transportation System. In addition, the February 1988 Commercial Space Initiative developed under the auspices of the White House Economic Policy Council and endorsed by President Reagan announced that the U.S. government would take the lead in enhancing opportunities for microgravity activities by becoming the "anchor tenant" of a Commercially Developed Space Facility (CDSF). As defined in a draft NASA Request for Proposals (RFP) dated March 24, 1988, such a facility would provide in low Earth orbit a sizeable pressurizable volume containing standard Space Station-compatible racks for mounting various types of equipment, and would make available specified average and peak power levels to such equipment. It would be capable of operating in two modes. When attached to the Shuttle orbiter, the CDSF would accommodate at least two persons working in a shirt-sleeve environment for a specified period; when in a free-flying mode, separate from the Shuttle, it would be capable of operating autonomously and maintaining a high-quality microgravity environment. This CDSF concept has been represented by its advocates as being both a significant enhancement of opportunities for microgravity research and technology development activities on-orbit, and a new way for NASA to gain access to such opportunities, since the CDSF would be financed, owned, and operated by the private sector rather than by NASA, a government agency. The "anchor tenant" concept, however, would involve a significant commitment of public funds at some future time for leasing up to 70 percent of the facility. Given the magnitude of the potential government commitment, on April 28, 1988, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation requested that the NASA administrator ask the NRC to conduct an independent study addressing the value of a CDSF to the nation. On June 2, 1988, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4561, which included language coinciding with the Senate request, and futher
stipulated that the National Academy of Public Administration conduct a parallel study of the cost implications of the CDSF proposal. In response, on September 19, 1988, NASA Administrator Dr. James Fletcher formally requested that the NRC conduct an independent study of the CDSF that addressed the following issues: (1) the scientific and commercial benefit to the nation of developing a Commercially Developed Space Facility prior to Space Station operations; (2) definitions of the criteria for optimum use; and (3) the technical characteristics of a CDSF that would enable its optimum use. Further, the NRC was asked to assess planned and anticipated microgravity research and manufacturing requirements of the federal government and commercial users prior to Space Station operations and how and to what extent existing, planned, and proposed capabilities and infrastructure could support these requirements. Dr. Fletcher's letter and the accompanying Statement of Work are included as Appendix A. To respond to this request, the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the NRC's Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems convened the 14-member Committee on a Commercially Developed Space Facility. Members of the committee had backgrounds in science, engineering, management, finance, and policy. The full committee met four times during the period from November 1988 to February 1989 and heard presentations from a wide variety of individuals and organizations interested in the country's microgravity research effort and the facilities required for its implementation. (See Appendix B for a list of study participants.) A subcommittee on microgravity requirements held additional meetings. The Statement of Work for the study did not request a perspective on the implications of "commercially developed," and commercial development is not a subject of the following report. The committee recognized that the earlier NASA draft RFP may or may not represent the optimal configuration for a "space facility" for microgravity research. Thus, to help make its judgments, it sought information about the capabilities of as many space facilities as possible ranging from the most modest to those of space stations. The committee devoted most of its time to assessing the potential role of a CDSF in the U.S. microgravity research program, although it also considered use of the facility for such purposes as validating the performance of various technologies being developed for use in space or gaining experience relevant to Space Station assembly or operation. Because of the dynamic nature of NASA's microgravity program (including the selection and design of experiments) and the long-range manifest of the Space Shuttle, the committee based its analyses on projected payloads and manifest capabilities as envisioned in early 1989. It was also necessary, however, to examine several contingencies having to do with transportation to space and the timing of the Space Station's deployment. The committee's conclusions are contained in the subsequent chapters of this report. The committee recognizes that space has significant
potential to advance knowledge about materials, biology, and other physical and scientific phenomena, and its conclusions and recommendations are meant to help further the utilization of space for human benefit. NOTES 1. Slichter, 1978, p. 5. 2. Todd, 1988, p. 1. 3. Dunbar, 1987, p. 7. 4. Ibid. 5. A commercial enterprise, as opposed to a government activity, is generally defined as being funded by money from private sources with private capital at risk, in which the product or service is paid for on delivery, and which receives little or no government supervision. If the above conditions exist and only one government agency is the customer, the effect is simply that the government is using a slightly different procurement approach, that is, delaying payment.