Spacelab Mission Sets Stage for Space Station
March 20, 1997: Scientists are looking forward to the upcoming Microgravity Sciences Laboratory 1 (MSL-1) mission with a mix of sadness and excitement as one era opens and another begins.
"It's sad that this [Spacelab] era is coming to an end," mission scientist Michael Robinson of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center told reporters in a preflight briefing on Tuesday. "But it's also exciting to have long durations; 16 days isn't enough. We're excited about going to Space Station."
MSL-1, set for launch on April 3 on Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-83), will be a 16-day mission to investigate a widerange of basic materials sciences ranging from the proteins that make up humans to the formation of glasslike metals to how flames form and die.
Kennedy Space Center on March 11 (center and right).
It will also be the last Space Shuttle mission carrying a Spacelab module dedicated to microgravity materials sciences. The program's lineage stretches back to Spacelab 1, in November 1983.
While future Shuttle missions will support microgravity experiments - notably the fourth U.S. Microgravity Sciences Payload (USMP-4) in August - the principal experiment platform of the future is the International Space Station which will be assembled starting in December.
"MSL-1 will help us make a smooth transition to Space Station," said Teresa Vanhooser, the MSL-1 mission manager at Marshall. "MSL has made significant advances in bridging the gap between Spacelab and Space Station."
In addition to carrying a Space Station rack to test experiment replacement on orbit, the experiment program will operate through three remote payload centers, and has investigators from Germany, Japan, and even Brazil, like Space Station. (ISS's principal science teams will be from the United States, Russia, Europe, and Japan.)
"This process of becoming a team is a good example of how, in future, science will be done on Space Station," said Dr. Egon Egry of the Germany Space Agency (DARA). Egry is the project scientist for TEMPUS, the containerless electromagnetic processing furnace which has German and American investigators.
When asked which experiments would be ranked as most important should the MSL-1 mission be cut short, Robinson cited his experience with TEMPUS on its first flight in July 1994. On that flight, a misaligned coil forced the TEMPUS team to shorten and replan their experiments.
As the TEMPUS team did then, the MSL-1 investigators would make "a logical group decision," said Robinson who then was the U.S. project scientist for TEMPUS. "It's a group of smart people here. I have a lot of faith in them."
While full-scale science operations aboard Space Station are a few years off, the scientists will not be idle.
"There's a tremendous amount of science that goes on in ground-based research," Robinson said. "This is just the culmination" of that work in one flight. Similar work, aboard low-g aircraft, suborbital rockets, Marshall's Drop Tube Facility, and laboratories where MSL- samples will be analyzed, will carry science from MSL-1 and earlier Spacelab missions forward until Space Station facilities are available.
To keep up to date on the MSL-1 mission, visit the MSL-1 web site. New items are added weekly, and daily science updates will be provided during the mission.
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