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NASA Washington, D. C.

An Educational Publication
of the
National Aeronautics
and Space Administration

The Next Step: Large Space S t r u c k ~ ~

Figure 1. Giant 100-meter diameter hoop-column or "maypole" antenna fully deployed in space.

1992: They float high andsilent in the cold blackness of communicate instantly, anywhere, anytime. And they are
space. They seem enormous to us, but then our human the sprawling, gangly platforms-power modules, tool
scale does not count for much up here. Only a few people sheds, scientific workshops in space.
have in fact ever seen them in theirfinal working shapes, Hard to believe there was a time when we could launch
even though all of us on Earth use them constantly, every only simple furniture-sized satellites. One of these giant
day antennas down on Earth would easily shade the Roman
They are the wheel-like antennas with dishes 100 meters Coliseum. They are among the largest structures ever
across and masts as tall as the Statue of Liberty-radio built, and they have mightily changed the world of the
relays for a world drawn closer by the awesome ability to 1990s.
barge Space Structures found, and not yet fully explored. Many ideas and
technologies do already exist: working models of
Now that we have a Space Shuttle to move large and
personal "Dick Tracy" wrist radios; designs for elec-
bulky cargoes routinely into Earth orbit, long-term
tronic mail systems with home delivery via satellite;
planners and researchers in government, industry,
300-channel TV sets tuned to stations all over the
and universities are shaping the work for a new era-
the building of very large and complicated structures
And there will be non-communications applica-
in space. Although enormous themselves, these new
antennas and space platforms will actually serve to tions, like the remote sensing of mineral deposits,
shrink the total costs of launching satellites for a ocean resources, and soil moisture to improve agri-
wide range of scientific and commercial uses, and culture, navigation, fishing, and mining; radar for mil-
itary surveillance or weather monitoring; tracking
will dramatically improve our worldwide communi-
deep space probes like Voyager or scanning distant
cations network.
The Shuttle Orbiter's closed cargo bay carries galaxies with orbiting radio antennas; even reflecting
up to 29,500 kilograms (32 tons, or three times the light or solar power back to Earth from low-orbit.
weight of a passenger bus) on each trip into space. The task now facing engineers is to set this fan-
Freight costs are charged both by weight and by tastic revolution in motion by designing, testing, and
length, so it will be wise to design space hardware placing these large structures in space.
that is both light and short. Structures that would
have been too fragile to stand up under their own Deployable Antennas
weight on Earth will now be able to fold up in the The first large space antennas will be deployables.
cargo bay and deploy safely into their final shapes They will fold into compact containers on Earth, go
in the weightlessness of space. up whole in one Shuttle trip, then deploy automati-
And the new capability tosupervise this deployment cally in space in a single operation. The key, obvi-
and construction in orbit will be crucial-the Shuttle ously, is to have the largest possible dish unfolding
will carry a work force of up to seven people into from the smallest and lightest possible package.
space on each one of its frequent flights, and will One type, the hoop-column or "maypole" antenna,
remain close at hand while the jobs are done. would open up in orbit much as an umbrella does. A
All of this creates exciting new possibilities for the cylinder no bigger than a school bus could be trans-
engineering of space hardware, and poses a brand formed within an hour into a gigantic antenna dish
new set of challenges. What are the strongest, light- 100 meters across (two acres in area).
est, and most stable materials to use in space con- Depending on the length of thevarious strings that
struction? How do you load the Shuttle so as to build stretch the fabric taut inside its stiff outer hoop, this
these colossal objects with the fewest trips into type of antenna can be designed for many shapes-
space? What are the best ways to assemble them that is, the bowl of the dish could be made flat, more
once the materials are delivered to the orbiting hollowed out, or even made of four different sur-
"sites"? And the most obvious question: What kinds faces, each focusing a beam in its own different di-
of structures will we build? rection. Multi-beam feeds could also allow one an-
Eventually we will want manned space stations tenna to do the work of several by pointing signals
and huge solar power collectors. But for the time toward different areas of the Earth's surface below.
frame of the late 1980s and 1990s, planners are con- In another type, the offset wrap-rib type of anten-
centrating on two main classes: Large Space An- na, the dish fabric is attached to flexible ribs that
tennas and Multipurpose Space Platforms. wrap around a central hub. The whole package is at
first quite compact, but once in space another mirac-
Large Antennas: Bigger, Stronger, Fewer ulous transformation in size takes place. A long
(about 150 meters for a 100-meter-wide dish) mast
In 1974, listeners in remote regions of Appalachia,
telescopes out from the core and turns a corner so
Alaska, and the Rockies heard a new voice from
that the dish is offset and not blocked by the mast,
above, and in that same moment joined the modern
an advantage in sensitive radar and radiometry mis-
world. The reason was ATS-6, a nine-meter-wide
dish antenna that relayed TV signals down to small sions. Then, like a pinwheel coming to life, the ribs
unfurl and straighten until they fully extend to stretch
receivers in previously isolated areas of the United
and support a round dish.
Other designs have also been explored, like the
ATS-6 was the largest civilian communications
wire-wheel antennas that resemble huge bicycle
dish launched in the pre-Shuttle era. Some of the
wheels, or the TRAC (Truss Radial-Rib Antenna Con-
new super-antennas will be ten times that size, big-
figuration) antenna that radiates spokes from a core
ger than a football field! This tremendous size means
to support a dish in its final roundness.
a boost in transmitting power as well as an increased
sensitivity to weak signals from the ground. And so,
instead of having massive dishes on Earth straining
to hear weak messages from space as we do today, Whatever their shape, these large space structures
the roles will be reversed. A few super-antennas will put great demands on the materials from which
placed in high geostationary orbits to cover the they are made. Even though they'll be free from the
globe will replace countless smaller satellites in weight stresses imposed by Earth's gravity, there will
space. And millions of inexpensive home rooftop be other strains from their tight packaging and from
dishes will receive the satellite signals now picked the hostile radiation and frigid temperatures of space.
up by only a few very large and powerful ground Engineers will need to build with new materials for
stations. a new age-materials that are at the same time light,
The implications of this coming boom in antenna super-strong, flexible or rigid (depending on the
performance for change in our daily lives are pro- use), and thermally stable. Telescoping masts must
be light, yet stay very stiff. Antenna ribs need to be
strong, but should be flexible enough to wrap around
their hub.
And everything needs to remain fixed in position
equally well in the hot Sun as in cold shadow, be-
cause if a structure were to expand with heat it would
ruin the extremely precise shape of an antenna
(some of which can be off no more than a few milli-
meters in a total diameter of 100 meters).
One substance that meets these hard demands
quite well is the graphite-epoxy composite now used
in lightweight tennis rackets, golf clubs, airplane
parts, and in the Space Shuttle itself. A three-meter-
long hollow tube of this material can be lifted with
one finger, yet for its purpose is ten times stronger
than steel.
Other materials suit specific jobs. The hundreds
of threads that pull and stretch a hoop-column an-
tenna into shape might be made of a quartz filament,
because quartz is very stable. The dishes themselves
should be made of fabrics that fold like cloth before
they are deployed. These would be metal meshes
woven like nylon stockings or soft porch screening
and coated with gold for ref1ectivity.A finer mesh will
be used for dishes that deal in smaller wavelengths.
For very small wavelengths there are ultra-thin mem-
branes made of transparent films coated with metals
that look and feel like sheets of Christmas tinsel.

Osrtp~lstsin %heSky
Suppose that five different groups want to fly sci-
entific or remote sensing instruments in Earth orbit,
all at about the same height and inclination to the
equator. Why not, instead of cluttering the sky with
five individual satellites, build a huge platform to
which all five can be attached? They could share the

Figure 3. Offset wrap-rib antenna deployed in space.

Figure 2. Deployment sequence for 100 meterdiameter

hoop-column [maypole) antenna.
cost of power and communications systems, stability
control, and cooling devices. Shuttle astronauts
would need to make just one repair stop at a time
instead of five, and could replace any of the original
five devices with a new one as needed. It seems a
sound and economical idea.
Such a good idea, in fact, that Multipurpose Space
Platforms are now being designed for the late 1980s.
The possible uses for these platforms are almost as
varied as their sizes and shapes. Any of these might
be "plugged in" to a typical one: an astronomical
telescope, a communications dish, a sensor to trace
air pollution or search for minerals.
As Figures 5 and 6 show, platforms will not be just
simple rectangular slabs. There are bird-like config-
urations with cross arms to hold sensitive instru-
ments apart from one another. There are modules,
like large rafts, that would support several instru-
ment pallets in a cluster. The only common element Figure 4. Engineers at the NASA Langley Research
will be the central "bus" that houses the platform's Center experiment with assembling possible structures
power generator (attached to wing-like solar collec- for space use out of lightweight graphite epoxy com-
tors) and thermal and electronic systems. posite cones.
Some of these platforms, especially those with
communications antennas, will need to hover in geo-
stationary orbits 35,900 kilometers above the Earth
in order to look down on large sections of the globe
or to stay fixed in one spot (as seen from the ground).
So will many of the super-antennas. Since the Shut-
tle orbiter itself flies no higher than a few hundred
kilometers, rockets can be attached either to an un-
deployed package right out of the cargo bay or to
an already assembled structure to boost it higher.
Eventually, no matter how cleverly the platforms
and antennas are packed, they will be too large to
unfold in a single deployable unit. At that point we
will have to send up these "erectables" in separate
pieces. Two such pieces (or a dozen, or even a hun-
dred) can be loaded into the cargo bay on Earth,
lifted into space, unfolded, and finally assembled
into a single gigantic structure in orbit.
What kinds of building blocks will we use on these
floating construction sites? Ideally they should be Figure 5. A basic orbital science platform features a
basic, simple, and adaptable to many different kinds power supply, communications and electronic equip-
of structure. For example, twenty deployable boxes ment, and a heat radiator. Science experiments for the
could be latched together to form a simple flat plat- platform will be brought to orbit by the Space Shuttle
form. Or several of the raft-like modules shown in and returned to Earth at their completion.
Figure 8could be snapped together to form a still
larger surface.
All of these have their roots in common household
objects-in collapsible cardboard boxes, folding
deck chairs, telescoping car radio antennas, accor-
dion baby gates-anything we have tried to make
smaller and more portable. Masts for dish antennas
will telescope into their full lengths from small cylin-
ders. Latticed trusses will store as flat packages,
unfold first into diamond shapes then finally into
But in each case, no matter how flexible their
hinges when stored, the modules must hold stiff
when deployed, as would the hexagonal pieces for
large antennas. Looking a bit like mini-trampolines
when unfolded, these hexagons will be attached pre-
cisely and rigidly to form great reflecting surfaces
many city blocks in area.
Not all of these potential building blocks will need
to unfold. Some of them will store quite easily just
as they are, like the light graphite-epoxy tubes that Figure 6. Geostationary science platforms are placed
will stack inside one another like ice cream cones in orbits, high above Earth, that permit them to be
and sit on racks in the cargo bay like arrows in a synchronized with Earth's rotation.
quiver. These tubes would then be attached to form
struts-struts that can themselves be joined to build
larger beams or trusses. Or they might be used to
form a thin hoop for a space antenna. Highly adapt-
able to many creative shapes, these struts will be
like giant tinkertoys for the practical construction
projects in space.

Deployable antennas will, in a sense, build them-

selves-they will unfold with the push of a button.
"Erectables" will not. Someone or something will
have to snap the separate pieces together.
Ongoing assembly projects (some of these struc-
tures will require several Shuttle trips to deliver all
the pieces) will therefore mean having the first con-
struction sites in space, and so a new type of work
for the human race.
At various NASA Centers, researchers are now
determining the most efficient ways to do the de-
ployment and assembly jobs of the Shuttle era. The
testing is done underwater in a cavernous, vaguely
eerie Neutral Buoyancy Tank that simulates to the
best of our ability the weightless conditions of space.
Technicians here practice the mechanical tasks nec-
essary for the construction of these gargantuan
space structures.
Figure 8. Deployment sequence of a space platform.

Figure 7. Segments of a modular antenna are removed from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle by remote manipulator
arms and are unfolded before being attached to the main structure.

Figure 9. Space-suited divers experiment with building techniques for future large space structures in the Neutral
Bouyancy Simulator at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. The giant water tank approximates the weightless
condition of Earth orbit.

Many factors are taken into account: safety and Or, for repetitious or dangerous tasks, unmanned
fatigue of the astronauts; speed in moving from one free-flying teleoperators-essentially programmed
place to another; the requirement for simple tools robots-could do the work with their own mechan-
and the need to restrain them so they don't float ical arms. There might also be assembler devices to
away; how much time the Space Shuttle loses linger- form three-dimensional structures from struts by fol-
ing around the "site" when it could be returning to lowing simple repeatable steps, and the Maneuver-
Earth for another load. able Television (MTV) units that would transmit pic-
In one method of assembly, astronauts tethered to tures to technicians in the Shuttle control room so
the Shuttle would simply move from beam to column that they could direct work by remote control.
to module, manually snapping, locking, or latching These devices will most likely be used later in the
everything together. Their travel time could be Shuttle era. In the meantime, astronauts will have to
shortened by wearing the jet-packs called Manned learn to erect structures the size of large stadiums
Maneuvering Units, models of which are used in in the peculiar world of low gravity. Seemingly easy
Neutral Buoyancy Tank simulations. tasks will become complicated-workers trying to
But it is not yet certain how we will combine man- turn ordinary bolts will be as likely to turn them-
power, machine operations, deployment, or assem- selves as the bolts, thanks to the lack of leverage
bly jobs to build these antennas and platforms. For that comes with weightlessness.
some projects it might be more efficient to move These are precisely the problems studied during
astronauts around on a scaffold in a Mobile Work simulated assembly jobs in the Neutral Buoyancy
Station (Figure 10) instead of having them fly all over. Tank, and they in turn influence the choice of tech-
The scaffold rests on a frame in the cargo bay and nology, like using latches that snap firmly together
moves either up-down or right-left.As sections of the with one quick motion instead of a series of twists
structure are finished they are moved away from the and turns. The goal is to $tandardize hardware and
station so that the part to be built is always in reach. assembly methods in order to get the jobs done as
Astronauts might also stand in open cherry-pickers quickly and correctly as possible.
attached to the Shuttle's 15-meter Remote Manipu-
lator Arm, and be moved from beam joint to beam Space Fabrication: The Automated Beam Builder
joint like telephone linemen working on high wires. After the deployables, and after the erectables, the
Even more sophisticated would be the closed cherry- next logical step is to build large structures ~om~pletely
pickers where workers inside a comfortable chamber from scratch by fabricating the building blocks in space.
would work with remote control arms.
Figure 10. An automated beam builder fabricating triangular-shaped truss beams from the cargo bay of a Space
Shuttle Orbiter. Reprintedwith permission of Grurnman
Aerospace HORIZONS Magazine.

A machine for that very purpose has already been with its heavy supports and concrete base, has a
designed. Called the Automated Beam Builder, it will mass of 7,260 metric tons. A 50-meter space antenna
sit at one end of the Shuttle's cargo bay. Spools of would have a mass in the range of 4.5 metric tons.
ultra-light material, probably graphite-epoxy or metal The whole structure could be pushed out of align-
matrix composites, would be loaded into the ma- ment by the steady, streaming pressure of solar
chine on Earth and carried into orbit. Once at the wind against its large area and every time a Shuttle
space construction site the Beam Builder would docked with one of these large platforms or made
heat, shape, and weld the material into meter-wide any physical contact, the delicate balance would
triangular beams that might be cut to any length, again be upset. Some structures will be so very large
then latched together to build large structures. By that they will feel tidal effects as if they were mini-
loading the cargo bay with extra spools, enough ma- moons, with gravity tugging harder on one edge than
terial could be carried up in one trip to build thou- on the other.
sands of meters of beams! Clearly we will need precise and sophisticated
Now, with the beam builder, we will advance from controls for stability, beginning with sensors to in-
the dreams of science fiction to practical blueprints dicate just when the structure is moving out of line.
for colossal structures that will dwarf the Space Onboard computers would then determine how to
Shuttle flying around them. As the platforms grow compensate, and finally small gas jets located around
in size, they will carry more science instruments and the structure would fire to make the necessary
will grow even more gangly with their cross arms, corrections. All of this would be a constant, self-
dishes, and wing-like solar panels. regulating process.
And everything will become more complicated. The need for strict attitude control extends to the
The need to control and maintain a perfectly still Space Shuttle as well, because while it is still at-
attitude is crucial to antennas and remote sensing tached to structures under construction it will act as
instruments which would be useless unless pointed part of the whole configuration. Added support arms
exactly. This means that these mammoth structures will therefore be needed to hold these massive an-
will not be able to wobble or bend out of alignment. tennas and platforms firmly to the Shuttle while they
Several things will conspire to push them out of are being built.
kilter, because as large as these objects will be, they
will also be relatively light and flimsy. (Compare
NASA's 64-meter antenna dish in Goldstone, Cali-
fornia with a space antenna). The solid ground dish,
Figure 1 1 . Using Space Shuttles and advanced heavy lift launch vehicles to transport materials,equipment, and crew,
kilometer-sizestructures such as this space solar power station may someday be erected.

1992: These antennas andplatforms were only designed learned much. Now our sights are set on settling space.
ten years ago. Engineers used computers to whittle away Manned space stations and great solar power collectors
at the options and build their working models. The models will bridge us nicely into the next century, when Earth-
that seemed most promising were tested further-under- orbit may become a permanent human domain, an ex-
watel; in soundless chambers, and in great warehouses pansion of the planet's biosphere.
where they were jiggled, twisted, measured, and cali- But before cities, before even "log cabins," came the
brated. Finally, when all was right, came the launches. large space structures, the antennas and platforms of the
Those giants have changed both worlds-above and early Shuttle era.
below the atmosphere-and in building them we have

Classroom a~%ivstoes with the smaller space antennas now being

used. How are they different? Compile a bibli-
1. Research and compare communications satellite ography on the possible applications of Large
technology of the 1960s '70% and '80s. Space Antennas.
2. List objects that share the qualities of collapsi- 5. Describe a typical working day in the life of an
bility and portability with large space antennas astronaut building a large structure in space.
and platforms. How did they come to be de- 6. Build a space platform model from commercially
veloped? What other objects may be developed available building sticks or blocks, from tooth-
in a similar fashion in the future? picks connected to styrofoam, etc. Take into
3. Keeping in mind loading constraints on the Space account its instrument load, need for electrical
Shuttle, how antenna surfaces are shaped, power, and the stowing of component parts.
crew limitations, etc., describe, step by step, 7. Read a current science fiction novel or see a
how the structures pictured in this booklet science fiction film that involves large space
might be deployed and/or assembled in space. structures and write a critique of the hardware
4. Compare the capabilities of 100-meter antennas creat$d for the story.

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