Mock-up of orbiting lab is on display


December 04, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

*OPEN HOUSE* Cozy four-room, ultra-modern home and laboratory. State-of-the-art gadgetry. Lots of built-ins. Battleship gray decor. Zero-gravity toilets and showers. Great views. Occupancy in the year 2000. $38 billion, firm.

A mock-up of Space Station Freedom, NASA's planned orbiting outpost, opened its doors to some of its prospective owners -- Baltimore-area taxpayers -- at the Maryland Science Center this week. And while Erik and Samantha Sivertson of Towson were intrigued, they weren't ready yet to move in.

"I think it's neat, but I don't want to float around," said a wary Erik, 7, a second-grader at Hampton Elementary School. His sister, Samantha, 9, a fourth-grader at Hampton, agreed about the "neat" part. But she thought that the two school-bus-sized living and working "modules" might feel cramped after a few months in orbit.

"If you can get along with the people that you're with, it will feel less crowded," she said. "But if you don't get along, it will feel more crowded."

In March, NASA spent $60,000 building its mock-ups of the station's "Habitation Module" and "Laboratory Module" in two tractor-trailers at Huntsville Space Flight Center in Alabama. The two mobile home-shaped units will form the living quarters of Freedom's skeletal, football-field-length complex of trusses, solar arrays, fuel tanks and corrugated heat radiators.

Since then, the two trailers have crisscrossed the country, stopping at planetariums, air shows, teachers' conferences, museums and, in Baltimore, the Maryland Science Center -- where they will be open to center visitors through Sunday evening.

The exhibits' appearance here is part of NASA's "Technology 2002," a space technology trade show at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Cindy A. Abole, a NASA public information associate who travels with the exhibit, said between 4 million and 5 million visitors have trudged through the two mock-ups in the past eight months.

She said most visitors come to the exhibit with little understanding of the space station, which will be prefabricated on Earth and built in the course of 17 Space Shuttle flights between 1996 and 2000.

"All they know is that it costs a lot of money," said Ms. Abole, 32, who dresses in a blue NASA jumpsuit and white athletic shoes. "They know nothing about what we're really doing here."

"The most important thing, I think, is to educate the young people and the students," she said. "They are going to be the astronauts manning the space station."

For a place called Freedom, there is precious little elbow room. Each module is about 27 feet long with ceilings about 8 feet high. Almost every square foot of the walls, floor and ceiling has a built-in drawer, its contents labeled in black letters.

There is a microwave, a built-in coffee maker and a built-in washing machine. The zero-gravity shower includes a vacuum to suck up the loose water. Compared with, say, your average prison cell, the rooms seem barren. There are no tables, chairs, lamps, desks, or other furniture because with near-zero gravity, all this stuff would only float around and bump into things.

Freedom won't be the first space station. The former Soviet Union launched six, and between 1973 and 1979, the United States operated Skylab, an orbiting laboratory built by the European Space Agency.

Critics have said the space station, first proposed by President Reagan in 1984, is too expensive and lacks clear scientific goals. Some say it may be more of a public works-style pork barrel for NASA and its contractors than a critically needed project. Earlier this year, space station skeptics in the House tried, and failed, to cut funding to $1.7 billion from $2.1 billion in the current fiscal year.

NASA, meanwhile, says building, operating and conducting research in the station could lead to the invention of new robots and construction techniques, improved metals and alloys, better ways to grow crops and the creation of new drugs. The skills learned in the station, NASA says, will be needed to build an outpost on the moon and send a manned mission to Mars in the next century.

Vice President-elect Albert Gore has said that the Clinton administration will support Freedom, which will cost the United States at least $30 billion, and its partners -- Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency -- another $8 billion.

Supporters fear it could prove an irresistible target when the White House and Congress look for big-ticket items to eliminate to finance domestic spending and reduce the deficit.

The Sivertson children's father, Dr. Keith T. Sivertson, was along for yesterday's tour. The former director of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Sivertson supports the project. "It's something we'll have to do in competing with other countries," he said.

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