What NASA hopes will be the first private "industrial park in space" got off the ground yesterday when the agency agreed to carry a factory the size of a bus into orbit, then resupply it three times a year using an astronaut maintenance crew.
The agreement calls for the space shuttle to carry into orbit as early as 1989 a drug and chemical factory expected to cost between $250 million and $500 million.
The agreement was signed by NASA Administrator James M. Beggs and Space Industries Inc. President Max Faget, who until three years ago was chief of engineering at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and who designed the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
"What we've done is design a facility for growth," Faget said at a news conference at NASA headquarters. "We plan to start out with a work space that's bigger than a Volkswagen that two people could work in comfortably and that could grow to as many as six of these factories that could be lined up in space like cars in a train."
The factory, which Faget called an Industrial Space Facility, would be 35 feet long by 14.5 feet wide, take up 2,500 cubic feet and weigh about 30,000 pounds.
The facility would take up more than half of the space shuttle's cargo bay and be carried to an altitude of 265 miles where it would be left permanently to manufacture pharmaceuticals, chemicals and exotic metals that cannot be made easily on Earth.
"The free-flying facility could also be attached to a space shuttle docking port or eventually become a part of America's space station," Faget said. "What we have done is design a space factory we hope will last forever."
Faget's space factory will be pressurized so men and women can work inside it in their shirt sleeves and will be electrified by two large solar panels.
Faget said the astronauts who work inside the space factory would not live there, but would return to the space shuttle or the space station whenever their work shift is over.
Faget said the space factory has been designed to work like an automated petrochemical plant that needs people only to maintain, repair and resupply it and return its products to Earth.
It has been designed for shirt-sleeve maintenance "because you can do things 10 to 20 times faster if you don't have to put those spacesuits on."
Faget declined to discuss who his customers might be or how his Houston-based company will finance construction of the space factory.
But money for the project would come entirely from private sources, he said: "NASA is not supplying us any seed money for this project."
However, NASA is giving Faget a cut-rate price to carry his 30,000-pound factory into orbit in late 1989. The agreement Faget and Beggs signed calls for Space Industries to pay no up-front money to reserve space in the cargo bay in return for payment to NASA of 12 percent of the revenues it collects every year from leasing the factory until NASA's launch service costs have been reimbursed.
Administrator Beggs said NASA will charge Space Industries a launch fee based on its 1989 pricing policy, which calls for a price no lower than $74 million for a full cargo bay. This means that Space Industries would pay NASA a percentage of $74 million proportionate to the space the factory would occupy in the cargo bay.
"If commercial space demand increases the way we think it will," Beggs said, "this will be a very profitable venture for everybody involved in it."