What was to have been a milestone in the history of space travel turned into a disappointing failure last week for Discovery, the third U.S. space shuttle. First, a computer malfunction delayed its scheduled launch for 24 hours. Then, in the last seconds of the countdown on the second try, the launch engines started up briefly, only to shut down after three seconds because a small hydrogen fire had broken out in one of the shuttle’s three main engines. Emergency systems quickly quenched the flames, and the disappointed six-member crew evacuated safely, but officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were left to count the costs of a delay of several weeks in the shuttle program. And behind the scenes private industries with plans for investing in space had to wait for a future mission to pave the way for extraterrestrial commercial ventures.
Discovery’s flight crew included the first representative of private industry to be scheduled for a space flight: engineer Charles Walker of McDonnell Douglas Corp., a St. Louis, Mo.-based aircraft and aerospace manufacturer which is actively investigating commercial possibilities in zero-gravity, totalvacuum conditions. During the voyage Walker planned to isolate a unique natural drug that technicians have great difficulty producing in the Earth’s environment. McDonnell Douglas spokesmen refused to say precisely what kind of drug Walker would be working with. But they said that his sample would be tested on animals and that the company hopes to have U.S. government approval to sell the drug to millions of potential users by 1987.
When Walker eventually performs his lab work in orbit it will mark the beginning of an ambitious program that McDonnell Douglas has planned for future space voyages. In partnership with Ortho Pharmaceuticals Corp., a division of the huge Johnson & Johnson medical products company, McDonnell Douglas has identified 15 substances that it hopes to be able to produce in marketable quantities in space by the end of the century. The company’s program manager, David Richman, refused to name any of the products or the diseases they could cure because of the fierce competition in the pharmaceutical industry. But they are all naturally occurring proteins, enzymes, hormones or cells.
Such substances are extremely difficult to isolate in large, pure quantities
on Earth. But in the vacuum of space, in the absence of gravity and rising heat currents, they should be relatively easy to collect with a process called electrophoresis—the separation of molecules according to electric charge. In fact, McDonnell Douglas is so confident it can create commercial quantities of drugs in space that it is planning to build its own “space factory” by 1988. Shuttle crews ' would visit the orbiting facility twice a year to collect products and deliver new
raw materials. And McDonnell Douglas is looking for potential customers. Said Richman: “We would like to sell our services in space, to be a contract manufacturer for pharmaceutical companies.”
McDonnell Douglas is clearly leading the way in terms of private industry commitment to space ventures. But there are many industries besides pharmaceuticals that can potentially take advantage of weightless conditions in space—among them, computers and metal alloying. And as NASA moves closer to its stated goal of having an $8billion space station in orbit by the early 1990s, many companies, both in the United States and Canada, are making
plans to be on board. But industry analysts point out that it is still too early to predict the main directions space developments will take. Phoenix-based futurist G. Harry Stine, author of the 1982 book The Third Industrial Revolution, compares the first commercial ventures in space with the spice and silk trade of the 15th century, which changed the course of world history. Said Stine: “I would not be surprised if one of the first space products will be jewelry—it is not
very big, it does not weigh much, but it is very expensive. To sell, it only has to have an appearance that cannot be duplicated here on the ground.”
So far, no jewelry company has approached NASA. But another industry with tiny products worth their weight in gold is beginning the ascent into space: the makers of semiconductor material for high-speed complex computers. Russell Ramsland Jr., executive vice-president of Microgravity Research Associates (MRA) of Midland, Tex., does not expect that crystals of the synthetic compound gallium arsenide, which his company is planning to produce in space, will replace silicon, the mainstay of the. computer industry.
But, he added, “Just as silicon can do things that vacuum tubes cannot, so gallium arsenide can do things that silicon cannot.” As a result, he is looking forward to a small but lucrative market supplying manufacturers of computers, lasers and other equipment requiring extremely highspeed, temperature-tolerant and radiation-resistant components. Ramsland’s five-year-old company has only three employees but it makes up for lack of size with an unbridled imagination. It has raised $2 million from private and corporate backers to finance sending automated equipment on a 1986 shuttle flight to produce gallium arsenide and hopes eventually to establish its own mini-factory in space.
In Canada the National Research Council (NRC) is looking for companies with similar ambitions in space. Its May offer of $2.4 million worth of research grants to help define what role Canada could play in building and using the space station has attracted proposals from 15 companies. The grants are to be awarded next month, and the NRC will not yet name the applicants. But Maclean's has learned that among them are Comineo Ltd. of Vancouver, a mining and refining company, Canadian Astronautics Ltd., an Ottawa aerospace company, and DSMA ATCON Ltd., a Toronto aerospace firm that worked with another Toronto firm, Spar Aerospace, on development of the successful remote
manipulator arm that has already been used on seven shuttle flights.
But most Canadian aerospace companies are too small to finance major ventures on their own and, as a result, they are forging a new role for themselves as middlemen between potentially interested manufacturing industries and venture capital sources. Even so, timing is an important factor when huge investments are tied up for a considerable length of time. Said Kenneth Lewis, president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada: “Our companies have the technical capability [for space manufacturing], but it is too early for us to put stuff aboard a space shuttle or space station. There is a long period of time before the payback.”
In the United States industry analysts generally anticipate a bullish future for commercial ventures in space. Declared Peter Glaser, vice-president of Cambridge, Mass.-based Arthur D. Little Inc., an international management and technical consulting firm: “Moving into space is the most important step in human evolution since we crawled out of the ocean onto dry land.” And the Massachusetts-based Center for Space Policy, which evaluates commercial opportunities in space, predicted that by the end of the century space-made pharmaceuticals will generate $27 billion in annual revenues, and gallium arsenide semiconductors another $3.1 billion. Meanwhile, U.S. industrial scientists
are eagerly looking forward to experimenting in space’s vacuum environment or witnessing combustion without heat or light. Said Christopher Podsiadly, director of the science research laboratory at the St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M Co.: “We may have to unlearn some things in space. What if you ran a chemical reaction up there and it came out differently than down here?”
Still, even the biggest companies and their shareholders are concerned about the immense capital outlays involved in space research, the enormous risks and the 10to 15-year lags before profits begin to flow. Last week’s Discovery disappointment heightened those concerns. A White House committee is currently looking into ways of encouraging investment in space, through tax incentives and regulation changes, and NASA itself plans to set up a high-level office to co-ordinate commercial use of space. But the space agency now has to concentrate on the problems that have plagued the shuttle program all this year.
Originally, NASA expected to mount 10 shuttle missions during 1984 but last week its estimate was down to six. During one of the two missions it has carried out in 1984, an eight-day trip by the shuttle Challenger in February, the small rockets on a launch system malfunctioned, and two multimillion-dollar communications satellites were lost in space. Those losses alarmed Telesat Canada, a world leader in satellite communications technology, and the company cancelled long-standing plans to have one of its Anik satellites launched during Discovery’s maiden voyage. NASA also had to cancel two of its missions when the U.S. military backed out of the shuttle program over dissatisfaction with the satellite launch facilities.
It takes months to prepare high technology for a launch, and there were fears that last week’s setback will further erode confidence. That, in turn, could lead to future shuttles flying with cargo bays less than full. For NASA’s part, one agency spokesman who did not want to be identified estimated that the delays for repairs and tests on Discovery—which will likely take at least three weeks—were costing the agency $1.5 million a day. But in many parts of an aerospace industry that has its future tied to the success of the shuttle and the establishment of a space station, optimism still reigned. Noted James Haggerty, a consultant with the Aerospace Industries Association, a Washington-based trade group: “There is an awful lot of panic about this latest delay, but we can expect these things for the rest of the century. Where were the Wright brothers after 12 flights?”
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