World space powers emerge from 1986 slump. Plans for space station, launch demands could boost West Europe space agency
London — The Americans aren't the only ones who have had a rough year in space. Starting with the space shuttle Challenger disaster a year ago today, a series of mishaps in both United States and European space programs have left the world's space business struggling to regain confidence. The setbacks in Europe's Arianespace program, which had been expected to jump in and meet launch demands, have left most commercial satellites with a long wait on the launch pad.
Now plans for the West's biggest space project for the next decade - construction of a $12 billion international space station by a US-led government consortium including Japan, Western Europe, and Canada - have encountered a number of snags.
Other countries have complained the US is unwilling to give them autonomy in choosing their activities on the station. It is expected to be in orbit by the mid-'90s and provide facilities for satellite repair and laboratory experiments in areas such as low-gravity materials processing.
In the latest difficulty, it has emerged that the US Department of Defense may want to have a say in running the station, which, it was assumed since negotiations between countries started three years ago, would be primarily civilian in nature. West European space officials say this could well be interpreted by the other nations as contrary to their interests - on the grounds that military work, for the US's space-based Strategic Defense Initiative experiments for instance, could impede commercial activities.
The agreement, due by spring and ready to begin full-scale development by year's end, is to cover such issues as how much each nation will contribute to costs and the kind of facilities each will provide.
According to observers, some participants - especially the 13-nation European Space Agency (ESA) - may consider leaving the proposed venture if terms are not favorable to them. If the discussions prove difficult, ESA could be tempted to change its proposal for a laboratory to join onto the US station and instead develop its own independent space base.
Challenger's explosion last Jan. 28 was only the first of a series of unsettling incidents for the West's space industry over 12 months. The accident led to the grounding until early 1988 of the remaining three US shuttles. It was followed by mishaps with the previously dependable Delta and Titan rockets operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the US Air Force.
To make matters worse, Western Europe's Ariane rocket - which seemed likely to launch most Western commercial satellites in the next few years - suffered another misfiring last May. As a result the next flight of the rocket, operated by Arianespace, a mainly private company in which the French government owns a one-third stake, has been postponed to March or April. This launch is due to take into orbit communications satellites for Eutelsat, a West European telecommunications consortium, and Australia.
The net result of the spate of problems is that 1986 saw the launch of only three commercial communications satellites, 15 fewer than the year before and the lowest since 1980, when two entered orbit.
The biggest losers have been telecommunications concerns such as Western Union, GTE, and Hughes Aircraft, together with countries such as India, Australia, France, and Britain. Both Arianespace and NASA have lost valuable revenue. The typical fee for launching a communications satellite is some $40 million.
The accidents have also undermined optimistic projections that the world was conquering the difficulties of leaving the atmosphere and that the day of large-scale space ventures was not far away.
President Reagan, in August, authorized the construction of a new $2-billion shuttle to replace Challenger. He also directed that the shuttle fleet should leave the business of commercial payloads.
As a result of this, although NASA will honor commitments to some commercial organizations for which it had promised to launch satellites, the agency projects that only 12 percent of flights in the first years after they resume will involve commercial payloads - a drop from about one third before the Challenger explosion.
In the short term, there is little doubt that the change in US policy on the shuttle will favor Arianespace, the shareholders of which are mainly aerospace companies and banks in West Europe. Arianespace is closely linked with ESA, which developed the initial rocket and is due to spend $2 billion in the next decade on a more powerful model, the Ariane-5.
Assuming Arianespace can correct the fault which led to May's misfiring, Ariane missions should take place at the rate of 6 to 8 a year over the next three years. In this time the rocket will probably take into space as many as 75 percent of the West's commercial satellites.
Arianespace director general Charles Bigot says the main competition will be the US launcher industry, once it has established itself. He says he feels the governments of China, Soviet Union and Japan, all of which have said they are interested in the commercial space business, are less of a threat to Arianespace. Of these countries, only China has won orders from the West for launches. But it has yet to launch a foreign payload.
Bigot says the other countries may well become established in the commercial launch business in the late '90s. But there are still obstacles to their doing business with the West. Japan seems a very long term bet with its fledgling space industry. Technology transfer rules could inhibit US companies' signing launch contracts with China or the Soviet Union.