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West faces costly gap in satellite launch schedule. US, European failures spark search for alternatives

By Peter MarshSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 1986


The space industry is facing a gap in satellite launches by Western carrier vehicles that could last several months. As a result of the failure of a West European Ariane rocket at the end of May, the West will -- for an indeterminate period -- have no way of putting spacecraft into orbit, an activity the space business thought it had mastered a decade ago.

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The Ariane failure destroyed a satellite being carried into space for Intelsat, the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization. It was the launcher's fourth mishap in 18 missions. The accident followed a string of failures in the United States space program this year which has grounded the primary US expendable vehicles -- Delta, Titan, and Atlas-Centaur -- as well as the space-shuttle fleet.

Ariane flights will be suspended indefinitely until a board set up to investigate the accident finds out what went wrong. Its initial report is due at the end of June.

Arianespace, the French company selling launch slots on the rocket, said the cause of the mishap was the failure of the automatic ignition sequence used to start the firing of the rocket's third stage. The firm said it could not speculate on how long flights will be delayed. After two previous failures involving Ariane, in October 1982 and last September, launches were delayed for eight and five months respectively.

Before the most recent accident, Arianespace had been hoping to gain commercially from the suspension of US launch activities. It has increased the number of scheduled Ariane flights to eight a year and was beginning to receive bookings from satellite owners who had previously hoped to launch their payloads from the space shuttle. For example, GTE Corporation and the British government have both in recent weeks asked Arianespace to put into orbit payloads previously earmarked for the shuttle.

The main losers from the suspension of US and European launches are companies and governments which over the next two years had hoped to launch about 30 communications satellites into geostationary orbit, most of them by either Ariane or the shuttle fleet.

The commercial launch business is worth about $500 million a year, and, until the recent spate of accidents, was roughly shared between Arianespace and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

According to David Lippy, president of the Center for Space Policy, Inc., a US consulting firm, the delays have left these concerns ``in the lurch.'' He says that most organizations with satellites to launch will have little option other than to adjust their schedules and wait for launch services to return to normal, a process that could take at least a year.

According to NASA officials, the shuttle fleet is unlikely to be flying before July next year. And it is thought that the US expendable rockets are unlikely to be operational before September or October.