IT'S IRONIC THAT THE CHALLENGER TRAGEDY may provide a major opportunity for this country's struggling space transportation industry. The subsidized space shuttle was stifling private initiative by providing launch opportunities at below-cost rates.
To make matters even less economic for the struggling companies offering privately funded competition to the space shuttle, insurance rates were rising sharply with each launch, and in some cases launch insurance was almost impossible to buy.At least some of these dark clouds hanging over the private launch companies were swept away by President Reagan's announcement that future shuttle flights will carry commercial satellites only when it is necessary for back-up launch purposes. If the satellite has been designed for shuttle launch - and some were apparently in at least the final design stage when the shuttle program was closed down - they can still be launched by the revitalized shuttle program.
That may take some time, however. Mr. Reagan's decision to approve development of a new $2 billion space shuttle to replace Challenger will take several years to get off the ground. Meanwhile, the private sector has an opportunity to promote expendable launch rockets. Several major rocket builders - Martin Marietta Corp., General Dynamics Corp. and McDonnell Douglas Corp. in particular - say they're talking with customers interested in having their assorted birds sent into orbit.
The two principal uses of such satellites are telecommunications and remote sensing. The most active competitor the shuttle had for this business was the European launch consortium Ariane. With the shuttle no longer available to launch satellites, Ariane is raising its prices - which also should be good news to U.S. companies planning to enter this market.
One use of shuttle flights was to involve payload specialists and other non-professional astronauts in the program. Such surrogate astronaut programs are on indefinite hold, including the much-publicized journalist in space competition, which drew 1,703 entries. The applicants narrowed to 40 after the program went on hold, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said. Some wags say former presidential aide Michael Deaver recommended New York Times columnist William Safire.
Latest word from NASA is that it will be several years before we will be able to include a journalist on a shuttle mission. The same can probably be said for a teacher who might be considered a replacement for Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger tragedy.
The space program is changing direction, as well as management, but as is often the case, such great changes bring great opportunities. Martin Marietta, in announcing its entry into the private rocket-launching business, said it will use its Titan rockets as a commercial launch vehicle. The Titan, Martin Marietta says, has a launch reliability record second to none, with 129 successful flights out of 134 launches since 1966.
General Dynamics Corp.'s Atlas Centaur rocket has a reliability factor of 96 percent; the McDonnell Douglas Delta rocket's reliability is said to be 93 percent. In contrast, Ariane's success ratio is 78 percent. The Soviets also announced that they're prepared to accept commercial payloads on their rockets.
It will be a highly competitive environment in the commercial satellite launch industry, but we are confident that the U.S. companies will do well. And it goes without saying that their customers also will do well, as the competition results in lower launch prices and increased reliability. We only hope that government regulation is not so confining that foreign launch companies end up having an edge over U.S. companies because of the high cost of dealing with several layers of bureaucracy.