La Jolla, Calif. — There is a portentous stirring among space engineers these days. The thrust of this activity is that the space industry is becoming commercial. This means, according to engineers, that the industry is changing its style.
''There is a sense in the community that things are about to happen, but they haven't happened yet,'' says James Arnold, director of the California Space Institute (Calspace).
What has for 25 years been a government-sponsored national mission for space exploration is set to become a bustling competitive arena full of entrepreneurs, investment ventures, cost-cutting, and marketing drives.
Most important, space transport is going to have to become cheap, the space engineers say.
In a cluttered white cottage set among the palms in the bluffs directly over the La Jolla beach, three scientists aspire to help shape this nascent industry that has yet to stretch its wings.
Calspace, sometimes dubbed the NASA of the West (perhaps a little facetiously , considering its size), was created by the California state government in 1979 to help focus academic research to the benefit of the space industry - which is largely based in California.
Commercial space travel now is at the point in its coming of age where aviation was in the 1920s, according to Stewart Nozette, Dr. Arnold's associate at the institute. He says the world has yet to take full measure of the uses space travel can be put to.
But there is no shortage of new ventures.
First, there are more satellites on order now than have been built in the last 20 years, notes Roger Lynch, director of commercial space programs at General Dynamics Convair in San Diego. All these satellites need to be launched and placed in orbit, and demand for this service has outrun the capacity of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for several years now.
This unmet demand convinced some entrepreneurial firms that the time was right to enter the space transport business.
Starstruck Inc., for example, a young northern California company, is building a sea-launched test vehicle called Dolphin. Its designers hope it can be fished out of the water after splashdown and used again like the solid-fuel boosters for NASA's space shuttle.
Dolphin is scheduled to take off some 200 miles off the San Diego coast for its first short flight this winter. It's a privately funded venture aiming to carry satellites up to the 22,900-nautical-mile altitude necessary to place them in a geosynchronous orbit so that they stay fixed over a certain spot on Earth.
Orbital Sciences Corporation in Maryland is packaging a propulsion system that carries a satellite from a low-orbit vehicle like the space shuttle into geosynchronous orbit.
Like many of the new ventures in space, Orbital Sciences will cut its costs by using ready-made, off-the-shelf hardware. ''Eighty percent of our equipment is already flight-qualified,'' a spokesman says. Costing from $16 million to $20 million a trip, ''in price, I don't see anyone beating us,'' he adds.
These entrepreneurs will be competing with the space shuttle, France's Arianespace Inc. (which is aggressively marketing launch space), and with some of the big US aerospace companies that have made launch vehicles for NASA.
NASA is promoting these private initiatives. In fact, the agency is not buying any more launch vehicles. This means some of the big aerospace companies that manufacture them must find private customers.
General Dynamics, for example, is working to get a NASA license to manufacture its Atlas Centaur launch vehicle - which has launched deep-space probes like the Voyager mission - for commercial use.
''If you want to stay in the business, you don't have any choice'' but to find commercial customers, says Roger Lynch of General Dynamics.
Very few, if any, of these companies actually have signed customers for their launch vehicles.
A more embryonic idea is the space factory. McDonnell Douglas Corporation, in a joint venture with Johnson & Johnson, is experimenting with the practicality of manufacturing medicinal drugs in space. Growing crystals for use as electronic semiconductors is another possible use of space conditions.
Dr. Arnold of Calspace - dwarfed at his desk by stacks of reports, journals, and notebooks - pictures this scenario about 15 years from now:
Lower-earth orbit is filled with a great variety of space platforms, both manned and unmanned, as well as remote sensing satellites for monitoring crops, weather developments, and many other conditions. Geosynchronous orbit - further out - is so crowded with communications satellites that a Californian can call a friend in Australia for 85 cents. Further out still, the moon is a base camp for deeper forays into space as well as a kind of support station for space activity.
To see this in 15 years would imply the same pace of progress in space as in the past 25, says Arnold. ''And I would be very happy.''
The next necessary step, he points out, is establishing a permanent space station.
''Our vision, for our kind of space station, is to have people up there with time on their hands.'' This would make research projects quicker and more flexible, giving scientists the freedom to experiment and make mistakes that they need to learn, he says.
Although the United States doesn't respond to competition from Soviets the way it once did, Arnold observes, the USSR has moved ahead in the space arena.
''They're in it for keeps. It's at least as important for their national prestige as it is for ours,'' he says.
Scrawled across the top of Arnold's blackboard, otherwise filled with technical sketches, are these lines from a shuttle astronaut:
What if man were an exile from the sky
And we perhaps remembering how to fly?