The space agency is considering a proposal by two private companies and a philanthropic foundation to take a unique camera on the next space shuttle mission to search for water in the drought-stricken and famine-plagued regions of Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.
Sources at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration say chances of getting the Large Format Camera into the cargo bay of Discovery in time for its scheduled liftoff June 14 are slim, partly because of the expense and partly because of the time it would require to write the computer-software instructions necessary to position Discovery so that the camera could photograph that portion of northeastern Africa.
"Nevertheless," a spokesman said, "the proposal is under active review to see if it can be accommodated on one of the seven missions remaining" in 1985.
The proposal was made earlier this month by BCI Genetics Inc. of Laconia, N.H.; New TransCentury Foundation of Washington; and Itek Optical Systems Inc. of Lexington, Mass., which designed and built the Large Format Camera for NASA. Their proposal, which they call "Flight for Famine," has the backing of the Agency for International Development.
Itek would like to get the camera on the June 14 mission because Discovery is scheduled to make 12 daylight orbits over the regions of Africa hardest hit by drought and famine. In addition, the mission will follow what passes for the rainy season in that part of Africa, which leaves telltale signs of underground water in soil and rock formations.
"We've had a burst of rain in that part of Africa, which makes the June timing perfect," said Itek Vice President Farouk El-Baz, a former NASA geologist and an expert on the drought regions of Africa. "This makes it easier to spot drain patterns and wet regions that tend to be the places where water collects and where water exists below ground."
Followup shuttle missions are less desirable, he said, because they are not scheduled to make as many daylight passes over the region and their crews have different and more pressing priorities.
"One of the six flights after the June mission is a Pentagon flight," El-Baz said, "and two others are dedicated to Spacelab, which takes up the entire cargo bay and leaves no room for our camera."
El-Baz said the 1,000-pound camera would fit nicely into Discovery's cargo bay in front of an Arabsat satellite -- one of three communications satellites to be deployed on next month's mission. The camera was instrumental on a previous shuttle flight in locating several underground wells in Egypt.
The camera cost $10 million to build, has almost no optical distortion and can cover nearly 20,000 square miles per picture at the same time that it can distinguish between two suburban homes from 150 miles up. It also takes pictures in stereo, which allows analysts to tell ridges from valleys and hills from plains.
"Besides our search for water, there is one other thing we can do on this mission," El-Baz said. "We can look right down at the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser in Egypt, where so much of Africa's water comes from and where the water level has dropped 100 feet in the last year. We have a priceless opportunity to study the sediment left behind the dam, where there appears to be a miniature Nile Delta in the process of formation."