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Getting into orbit - the non-NASA way.

Getting into orbit--the non-NASA way

The idea of sending payloads into orbit as a privately financed, commercial enterprise was a topic of conversation even in the early years of the space program, yet only recently has it seemed to be approaching reality. A major factor has been NASA's decision, following the Challenger explosion, that the only non-NASA payloads eligible to use the space shuttle will be those either specifically requiring the shuttle's capabilities or with national security implications. This month has seen a number of signs of the turning tide.

On May 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose satellites have heretofore been launched by NASA, announced that for the first time it is now seeking commercial launch services. Responses to its solicitation notice, covering rockets and services to launch five geosynchronous weather satellites (called GOES) beginning in late 1989, are due by June 15, with the winning company or consortium to be selected by early September. The satellites' manufacturer, Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp., was told months ago to modify the devices' design to allow launching by either shuttle or "expendable launch vehicles.'

Last week, a small private concern called Starfind, Inc., in Laguna Niguel, Calif., announced a plan for its proposed series of position-and-navigation satellites (the company's entire raison d'etre) to be launched by another private firm, Space Services, Inc. (SSI), of Houston. SSI has conducted only a single, suborbital test launching, and that was back in 1982 (SN: 9/18/82, p.180). However, its plan has never been to develop a new rocket design, but rather, in the words of one SSI official, "to combine existing stuff in a way that makes money.'

Starfind's goal is to enable extremely accurate positional "fixes' from a single satellite (with several in use for round-the-world coverage) for tasks ranging from rescue operations to monitoring the positions of whole fleets of civilian or military vehicles. Like SSI, Starfind avoids exotic new technology, and by-passing vast expenditures for research and development may become significant if more private firms are to discover that they have business in space.

Meanwhile, established launch-vehicle builders such as Martin Marietta and General Dynamics are also pursuing non-NASA customers, but NASA still has launch problems of its own.

Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee approved its own version of a NASA authorization bill for fiscal year 1988, with one key difference from the Reagan administration's bill being the addition of $100 million for NASA to begin buying some nonshuttle launchers. NASA has advocated such a "mixed fleet,' but has yet to seek the necessary funds. Perhaps they are leaving it up to Congress, suggests one committee staffer, so as not to display lack of confidence in the shuttle.
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Title Annotation:private satellite launch services
Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:May 23, 1987
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