President Reagan has challenged US business to seek the ''blue sky'' of opportunity in space. It is a sobering prospect. Near-Earth space is no longer just a frontier for pioneering astronauts and researchers or an outpost for communications relays. Several companies are eager to take over NASA's unmanned launcher business. The President had this specifically in mind when he authorized the Commercial Space Transportation Office in the Department of Commerce and issued his challenge.
However, there is more to the new space opportunities than satellite launching. Several dozen companies are interested in various forms of orbital manufacturing. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will help them with seed money and basic research. Possible products include electronic materials, pharmaceuticals, and precisely shaped microspheres used for industrial measurements.
All of these either can only be made, or are more easily made, in a zero-gravity environment.
The administration's decision to support a civilian space station has signaled US industry that the country does indeed have a long-term civilian space program in which it can participate. That is why companies are taking the prospect of space manufacturing much more seriously now than in recent years. But with the opportunities comes a demanding responsibility. Both operations and equipment must be held to very strict standards of quality. Two satellite booster rocket failures during the last shuttle mission - apparently due to bad engine-nozzle material - show there is little tolerance in space for sloppy workmanship.
Failure to meet quality standards has brought the US nuclear-power industry to its knees. Managers of space businesses should profit from this example.