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Launchlog '86: NASA blast-off plans.

The launch pads of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration may send off as many 25 missions during 1986 -- 15 by the space shuttle and 10 by the conventional rockets that NASA calls "expendables." Their goals range from science to business engineering, from public relations to classified military projects, together creating what could be the busiest blast-off year in NASA's history.

Much of that diversity is exemplified in the first launch on the schedule, which wll also be the 24th space shuttle flight. Besides a commercial communications satellite (one of at least 11 tentatively tagged for this year), the payload includes a Materials Science Laboratory for NASA itself, the first of several flights of an instrument package called CHAMP to study Comet Halley, an infrared camera to study heat sources on the earth's surface and an experiment to study the effects of weightlessness on stored human blood samples. In addition, there will be several smaller projects riding in the low-cost canisters that NASA calls "Getaway Specials," three others developed by students and another batch mounted in a new, multi-experiment package called a "Hitchhiker."

Besides the NASA astronauts who will command and pilot the shuttle during the flight (known as mission 61-C), the crew includes a plasma physicist, an astrophysicist and an astronomer, as well as two "payload specialists" -- an engineer from RCA (which developed and owns the satellite and the infrared camera) and Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who chairs the House Space Science and Applications Subcommittee.

The best-known crewmember aboard the subsequent flight will almost surely be New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, selected from among more than 100,000 applicants to be a "teacher in space," conducting two televised "classroom" sessions from orbit and then spending a year on the ground describing her experience. Other missions will include the first space-going journalist (yet to be selected, for mission 61-I), as well as payload specialists from Indonesia (61-H), Britain (61-H) and India (61-I), and U.S. Air Force Under Secretary Edward C. Aldridge.

Aldridge will be on mission 62-A, the first of four Defense Department flights scheduled for 1986. Planned as the first shuttle mission to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, it will also be the first to send the craft into an orbit that crosses over the earth's poles, so that the planet's whole surface spins beneath it. This mission -- the only one of the four that is declassified -- will carry 11 sensors in two batches, one of which will be deployed as a separate satellite and features an infrared system called Teal Ruby to detect aircraft in flight. The other package includes cameras and other detectors to study the earth's aurora, as well as for X-ray, gamma-ray and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) astronomy.

Astronomy is also the goal of the Hubble Space Telescope (mission 61-J), which some researchers have said will represent an advance as significant as when Galileo first aimed a telescope at the heavens in 1609. Designed to operate in earth-orbit for 15 years or more, while shuttle crews periodically service it and equip it with new generations of instrumnts, the telescope is expected to gather light from some 350 times the volume of space available to existing instruments, eons after such emissions left their sources. According to one NASA description, "We may even see the universe as it appeared just after its formation, an estimated 15 billion years ago."

Also being launched this year will be NASA's latest interplanetary spacecraft, the Galileo orbiter-and-probe of Jupiter. Reaching the planet in December of 1988, it will deploy a probe into the giant planet's atmosphere and then spend a planned minimum of 22 months studying the diverse Jovian moons, as well as Jupiter itself. Galileo's first spectacular may take place this year, however, when the craft offers the chance of the first close look at an asteroid, one named 29 Amphitrite. Galileo officials have made no commitmet actually to study Amphitrite on the way past--that will depend on first confirming the spacecraft's health in the couple of months after launch, sine the Jupiter encounter is the highest priority and any problems may lead to canceling the asteroid observations. But the evidence of their willingness to give it a try is the Amphitrite side trip that will add three months to the Jupiter journey, even if the craft never gives the asteroid so much as a passing glance.

However, for Galileo even to leave the earth-circling orbit into which the shuttle will initially deploy it, it must first pass a major technological milestone. The upper-stage rocket that will send the heavy craft on its way is a high-energy, liquid-hydrogen-burning rocket called the Centaur--a type that so far has never been used during a manned mission. The shuttle orbiter will have moved off to a safe distance before the Centaur is ignited, but even carrying the booster' highly explosive fuel supply up from earth has required NASA to incorporate intensive safety preparation. And the shuttle version of the Centaur will have been tried only once before--as recently as five days earlier.

On that occasion it will be used for the year's only other shuttle-launched "deep space" mission, a craft built by the European Space Agency to study the poles of the sun. Called Ulysses, it will first be sent out to Jupiter, so that the planet's gravity will re-angle the plane of the craft's orbit to reach the high solar latitudes. (NASA had formerly planned to send an identical spacecraft of its own, so that the sun's north and south poles could be studied simultaneously, but budgetary priorities got in the way.)

Besides several other shuttle missions (such as 61-M, carrying the production prototype of an electrophoresis system to produce ultra-pure biological materials in orbit), NASA's schedule reserves space for launches by as many as 10 expendable rockets, six of them carrying military payloads. But even without them--and some could be delayed--it will be a busy year.
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Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 4, 1986
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