Washington — US satellites are flying slapdash into trouble, in the view of some experts. Although the development of military satellites and space-based weapons systems continues apace, the parallel development of lightweight nuclear reactors to power them is being neglected, they say -- with possibly serious consequences for national security.
Indeed, there is some concern that the technology base which would enable the US to produce such nuclear power plants is itself threatened with extinction.
By contrast, the Soviet Union has shown no reluctance to install nuclear reactors aboard its satellites. Cosmos 954, which crashed in northern Canada in 1978 after suffering a mysterious depressurization, was equipped with one.
"We are presently a decade behind in operating experience with such systems," declares Rep. Barry M. Goldwater Jr. (R) of California, a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, "and since it will take seven to 10 years to develop our own space nuclear reactor system, we are approaching the point where we will be two decades behind the Soviets."
Representative Goldwater claims that power systems presently employed in the US satellites, such as radioi isotopes and solar arrays, can barely generate 10 kilowatts of power, let alone the 100 kilowatts that could be required for the new generation of ocean surveillance and communications satellites. Simply increasing present power sources, he feels, "may be both practically and economically infeasible."
As a congressional defense analyst puts it: "Military uses demand a tremendous amount of power. You're talking about solar arrays the size of football fields which are easily damaged in any kind of a meteor shower and are terrifically vulnerable to attack."
Goldwater, the son of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, adds that increased power would also be required to operate directed energy weapons (laser and charged-particle beams) and to enable satellites to make evasive orbit changes. Noting that the Soviet Union began work on space nuclear reactors in 1966, he bluntly declares that the US has no space nuclear reactor capability.
Few conversant with such technology doubt that it would greatly enhance the performance of US satellites -- both military and civilian.
Comparing the capabilities of nuclear-and nonnuclear-powered satellites is like comparing "night and day," exclaims Jerome Mullin, manager of the Office of Space Power and Propulsion at the headquarters of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) here.
The considerable lead attained by the Soviets worries many. "By the time everything is said and done they'll have 10 to 100 times as much power ability as we do. They'll have the jet and we'll have the piston-engined airplane," exclaims Gary Fitzpatrick, vice-president of Rasor Associates Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif., firm that specializes in thermionic energy conversion, a technology that might be applied to the development of space nuclear reactors.
"You're more maneuverable with nuclear power sources," observes Mr. Fitzpatrick, "and they're more compact and lighter for the unit amount of electricity that they produce." Adds Rasor's Edward Britt: "The orbit decay is not as severe with a smaller device. A larger one encounters much more atmospheric drag."
Experts connected with the field of space nuclear reactors contend that the US would be unwise to deny itself the most efficient power source, particularly at a time when the prospect of war being extended into the realm of space is becoming increasingly real.
The US has placed a heavy reliance on satellites -- for communications, communications intercept, weather prediction, geographical positioning, early warning, and reconnaissance. In fact, the Pentagon depends on satellites for much of its ability to communicate with its far-flung forces.
With the recent, apparently successful, test of a Soviet killer satellite, the ability of US satellites to maneuver as effectively as possible is considered of paramount importance by space experts.
Goldwater believes the US should be "seriously considering" leapfrogging the Soviet Union with a superior space nuclear reactor of its own.
The US would not be faced with building a system from scratch. "This country spent a lot of money developing such reactor systems in the late 1960s and early 1970s," says Rasor's Fitzpatrick. The program came to grief in 1972 when the Nixon administration axed NASA's nuclear rocket program. "They threw out the baby with the bathwater," says Mr. Mullin of NASA.
But the technology has been kept alive over the years by a joint Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA program funded to the tune of $3.5 million annually.
Goldwater, however, is not confident that the program will survive the year unless the Department of Defense makes a substantial contribution towards it.
NASA's Mullin explains that late last year the Office of Management and Budget directed DOE not to fund the program unless NASA and the Defense Department made a contribution. "We have subsequently made a decision in NASA that we would support the reactor technology but at a very low level of effort," he says, adding that "it's adequate to hold the group together through fiscal ' 82."
As far as DOE is concerned, the program's future "all depends on the '82 budgeting cycle," says Bernard Rock, director of the agency's Space and Terrestial Systems Division. "We're going through all of the congressional committees now." He says he believe it likely that the Defense Department will not support the program "and I think that's where people are registering concern."
In a recent letter to Goldwater, Air Force Secretary Verne Orr declared that "for about a year, we have been examining the DOD's [Defense Department] potential needs for reactor powered space systems." His finding: "Although some of the systems might require a nuclear reactor power source of some kind, the space systems that are likely to be deployed in the next decade are within the capabilities of advanced solar array and battery systems."
But he stressed the need to keep abreast "of future space system concepts which might use a reactor system" and said that a decision to fund the DOE-NASA program wou ld be taken "within a month or two."