The first space shuttle flight entirely chartered -- for $65 million -- by one customer, West Germany, is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center here at noon Wednesday if thunderstorms spawned by Hurricane Juan do not force a delay.
The 22nd shuttle flight, carrying a record eight-member crew and being piloted by Americans, will be devoted to scientific experiments by West German and Dutch scientists.
The shuttle's cargo will contain a 17-foot-long laboratory in which three scientists, two West German and one Dutch, will carry out 76 experiments during the planned seven-day flight. The cargo bay normally accommodates satellites. The scientists will enter it by crawling through a tunnel from the spacecraft's main crew quarters.
American astronauts will fly the shuttle while the Europeans, assisted by three of the five Americans aboard, do the experiments.
Ground control of the scientific operations will be in another country for the first time, at the West German space agency's center in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich. Ground control for the shuttle will be, as usual, at Houston's Johnson Space Center.
"This particular flight is very pleasing to NASA," said Jesse Moore, associate administrator for space flight for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "The Germans and NASA have worked very well as a team."
Since spring scores of German scientists and engineers have been working at the space center, making German an even more common language there than it was some 20 years ago when Werner von Braun and his colleagues formed the nucleus of the infant U.S. space program.
West German space officials echoed much the same sentiment about international cooperation, perhaps the closest that has been achieved by two countries on a space project.
"As a customer of NASA," Norbert Kiehne of the Federal German Aerospace Research Establishment, said wryly, "we, of course, will not be satisfied before delivery. But we are very satisfied so far."
The laboratory, called Spacelab and built by the European Space Agency, an international consortium, consists of a room lined with racks of scientific equipment, each piece specially built to carry out one experiment.
Most of the experiments were designed by German researchers but a number are from France, Spain, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and the United States. All are intended to take advantage of the essentially weightless conditions of space to study various processes that are normally affected by gravity.
The largest class of experiments is in materials science, where one goal is to develop lighter and stronger metals and other materials. When molten metal cools and hardens, gravity alters its crystal structure. Without gravity, some scientists believe, such substances may crystallize with a more perfect arrangement of atoms.
The second largest group of experiments, in the life sciences, includes studies of how embryos of frogs and insects develop in weightlessness. It is believed, for example, that gravity affects cells during division, helping determine which are contained in the top or bottom of an organism.
In some experiments the astronauts will be the guinea pigs. A key goal is to learn more about the causes of the nausea that has afflicted many astronauts.
The shuttle vehicle is Challenger, which will be making its ninth trip into space. The crew will be led by Henry W. Hartsfield, the commander, and Steven R. Nagel, the pilot. In addition there will be three American mission specialists, Bonnie J. Dunbar, James F. Buchli and Guion S. Bluford Jr.
The German scientists are Ernst Messerschmid and Reinhard Furrer. Wubbo J. Ockels is the Dutch crewman.
To accommodate a crew of this size, NASA engineers installed an extra "sleep station," bringing the total to four. Work in the laboratory will conducted in shifts around the clock.
Another modification was enlargement of the waste-handling capacity of the shuttle's toilet by adding a compactor.