Fairchild Industries Inc. and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration yesterday announced plans to build as many as 10 factories in space and lease them to companies for out-of-this-world manufacturing plants.
Fairchild will build the orbiting factories at its Germantown plant and then NASA's space shuttle will fly them to extraterrestrial industrial parks, under the agreement signed yesterday by the two organizations.
The first firm to lease a factory in space could be McDonnell Douglas Corp., which is working on a process to make drugs in a weightless environment, Fairchild executives said.
Chairman Charles G. Uhl said Fairchild plans to invest $200 million to design and build the first of the industrial space platforms that will be known as "Leasecraft."
The first Leasecraft is scheduled to be launched in 1987 and Fairchild hopes to have a fleet of 10 in operation within five years after that, the company said.
NASA will not pay for construction of the satellites, but, for its part in the joint venture, it will launch the Leasecraft for free and will use its space shuttle to service the satellites by picking up payloads or dropping off supplies as needed.
Once in orbit, the factory satellites could operate for as long as 10 years, with the space shuttle visiting them every six months or so, officials said at a press conference at NASA headquarters.
Fairchild plans to hire about 200 new scientists, engineers and technicians at Germantown to work on Leasecraft and someday could sent its people up on the space shuttle to service the orbiting platforms.
Like a developer putting up an apartment house and then leasing out the units, Fairchild will build the satellites and rent them out, complete with such services as electricity, earth-to-space communications links and controls for the satellite manufacturing process.
Renting a factory in space could cost as much as $5 million a month, a Fairchild representative said, but that could prove to be an economical price to pay for a place to perform jobs that cannot be done on earth.
Besides taking advantage of weightlessness to make pharmaceuticals, NASA officials have said other jobs that might be performed in space include growing unique forms of crystals for computer chips, processing metals in a near-vacuum and making the ultimate ball bearings--perfectly round spheres undistorted by gravity.
The Leasecraft satellites that Fairchild is developing have a work platform about 15 feet square and 14 1/2 feet high. Electrical power will come from a pair of 66-foot long wings covered with solar panels.
As the first phase of the five-year Leasecraft program, Fairchild will research the market, engineer the platforms and line up customers. In Phase II, Fairchild will build the first satellite and NASA will launch it.