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06/08/94

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Go international to cut space exploration costs, say Stanford engineers

STANFORD -- At a time when even members of Congress who love the space program have to balance the promise of new horizons against earthbound budget constraints, a team of engineers at Stanford has a few suggestions on how to get more bang, more quickly, for the space buck.

Start by internationalizing, says Associate Professor Bruce Lusignan, and draw on existing technology from the United States, Europe, Japan and Russia. Then try something like this:

  • Build the space station on Earth as one six-story unit, instead of building many modules to be assembled in space. Launch it on a tried and true Russian heavy-lifting rocket, and the cost would be low enough to launch several, if needed - one for any nation that wants a custom-built manned space facility.
  • For astronomers jostling for precious viewing time on the Hubble Space Telescope, use a Russian-built commercial rocket to launch an even larger, 4-meter telescope, built with U.S. missile- tracking technology originally developed for the Strategic Defense Initiative.
  • Use a Russian heavy-cargo plane to save launch-to-orbit costs for a privately financed international space plane. This would be a cheap - and potentially profitable - alternative to the space shuttle.
  • Recycle the missiles that the United States and Russia used to point at each another, and use them to probe the surface of Mars instead.

These and other ideas for budget-lean international space projects were proposed May 31 at the annual symposium of Lusignan's E-235 engineering study group. Each year electrical engineer Lusignan draws on the experience of government and industry space experts, plus a unique collaboration with members of a Russian space think tank, to provide his graduate engineers with the chance to design real-world solutions for projects with out-of- this-world possibilities.

Sometimes the Lusignan group's ideas make political waves. In 1991, they suggested that a mission to put men and women on Mars could cost $60 billion instead of NASA's then-proposed $540 billion, if the United States cooperated with the Russians and left out a politically popular intermediate stage, the planned space station. Such international cooperation was later endorsed by the Bush administration's Space Council. The Clinton administration has signed agreements with Russia to collaborate on a scaled-down version of the space station, and the two nations are cooperating with several others on elements of the space program.

A white paper circulated by Lusignan in 1993 proposed internationalizing and simplifying space shuttle and space station plans to make room for a lean, advanced international program aimed at a manned mission to Mars. An Aug. 16, 1993, article in Space News said that Lusignan's paper represented the views of an informal but influential lobbying group, including Hoover Institution fellow Edward Teller, that had influenced policies in both administrations.

Twenty-five Stanford graduate students are enrolled in the six-month E-235 seminar. They work with Lusignan and several consulting faculty members: Larry Colin, a former NASA-Ames space scientist; Lew Franklin, a former vice president of the aerospace firm TRW, and currently a fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control; Gary Hudson of Hudson Eyer, a developer of private alternatives to government launchers; and Peter Milford, a postdoctoral researcher from Stanford's Center for Space Science and Astrophysics.

Three Russian space scientists joined the group in May. Vladimir Kotin and Alexander Loukiantchikov, from the Lovochkin Association-Babakin Center, and Michael Baskov of the Bauman State Technical University in Moscow are participating with support from industry donations.

Four teams examined potential international space projects. One suggested ways to enhance two unmanned international missions to Mars that would combine the delayed Russian 1996 and 1998 Mars missions and the repeat of the failed U.S. Mars Observer. The Proton heavy-booster rocket, developed by the Russians but now co-sponsored by the U.S. firm Lockheed, could be used to launch a U.S.-built Mars orbiter. The Proton also could launch an already developed Mars rover vehicle that would carry a payload of experiments contributed by many nations as it roamed the surface of the red planet. Probes to measure seismic data could be shot into Mars' surface using decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles from both U.S. and Russian arsenals.

A second team analyzed the concept of an international space plane, touted by some as the next generation of re-flyable space vehicle. Using a single-stage-to-orbit architecture, such a plane could be lifted to high altitude on an existing Russian cargo plane, the Antonov-225, which has a payload 50 percent greater than the Boeing 747s used to ferry the current space shuttle. The space plane would use its own engines to boost the rest of the way into orbit, rather than use disposable rockets. The plane would use existing technology already demonstrated by the Delta Clipper, which flew in the summer of 1993.

The Stanford engineers estimated that such a plane could carry a payload of 20,000 pounds of cargo and crew into low earth orbit. Based on existing industry studies, they estimated a cost of development of less than $1 billion over six years, and a cost per space flight of $6 million. In contrast, Lusignan says, the space shuttle currently costs $6 billion per year. He suggests the international space plane could be privately financed by U.S. and Japanese corporations. By the end of the decade, it could operate as a low-cost replacement for the space shuttle and compete favorably with the world's expendable rockets.

The proposed international space station would be built as a logical next step to the Soviet Mir manned station. Unlike Mir, it would be outfitted for artificial gravity, to test the artificial gravity and life support systems needed for interplanetary flight. Past research by Stanford doctoral candidates has indicated that a relatively simple artificial gravity system could be built using a tether and weight. The Russian Energia rocket, with an 80-ton payload, or the 34-ton Energia M, could be used to launch the station to orbit.

The 4-meter space telescope is based on a proposal made by Lockheed to the Defense Department, Lusignan said. It would use technology developed as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative for tracking missiles launched from Earth, but turn its telescope instead toward the stars.

Lockheed estimated the cost of this at around $320 million, including upgrades to make the system suitable for astronomy. The Stanford team estimated that if it were operated by the Air Force as a single experimenter sharing experiment time with others, the telescope would have astronomy costs of $5 million to $10 million per year. Lusignan said this compares with much higher yearly budgets to operate the Hubble Institute consortium.

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