WASHINGTON — Hidden in the hubbub and confusing detail of allegations that US satellite companies may have enhanced China's nuclear weapons program lies a simple question.
Why does the United States depend on countries like China to launch its satellites into space in the first place? America, after all, had its first successful satellite launch program all the way back in 1958. China didn't launch its first satellite until 1970.
Moreover, the US is still preeminent in satellite construction. And American companies like Boeing make some of the most reliable rockets in the world.
But the bottom line, it turns out, is the bottom line.
Construction and launch of US rockets are some of the most expensive on the global market. It's about 15 percent cheaper to launch a satellite on a Chinese Long March rocket, according to industry experts, than on a comparable American vehicle. On a US Atlas rocket, which costs roughly $100 million dollars, that means serious savings.
"The worldwide market is very competitive and the US has not maintained the same competitive edge ... it's why more than half of America's launches are done by other countries," explains Marshall Kaplan, chairman of Launchspace Inc., a space-consulting firm based in McLean, Va.
That is not to say the US is an insignificant entity in the worldwide satellite delivery business. US companies last year had just over one-third of the overall market share. Other countries predominant in the launch business are China with its Long March rockets, France with Ariane, and Russia with Proton. Ukraine and Japan are also key players among fewer than a dozen or so principal launch-providing countries.
Satellite companies, and those that purchase them also go to foreign launch providers for other reasons. When Motorola set out to create its ambitious Iridium constellation made up of 66 satellites, it sought international participation while spreading the risk of using just one launch system. Set to come online in September, the constellation will provide wireless global communication anywhere in the world using the same telephone.
"The Iridium system is global. It is a logical fit that we would have global participation," says Robert Edwards at Motorola's Space and System Technology Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. Chinese, Russian, and American rockets were contracted to do the job.
Nevertheless, some still question why US launch providers aren't more dominant. The answer lies in decisions made a decade ago.
"It's an industrial-policy decision. Eight or ten years ago, we had to decide if we thought the satellites or the launch industry would be the strategic sector," explains John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.
More space capital in the past decade has gone into programs supporting satellites (the payloads that rockets deliver) rather than into developing production lines of relatively inexpensive rockets - the moving vans that get the payloads into space. And as Mr. Pike explains, it was the correct decision to make. When it comes to satellites, the US is king. Of the 27 commercial satellites placed in geostationary orbit last year, 23 were manufactured in the US, according to industry figures.
But a new wave of demand on launch services is putting renewed emphasis on developing less-expensive launch systems. And this time around, the United States is actively involved.
The EELV (evolved expendable launch vehicle), three to four years from production, will put military and commercial satellites in space. Its proponents claim it will save the government $5 billion to $10 billion in launch costs over the next 20 years.
Highlighting another trend in the quest for cheaper launchers and joint ventures is the unique Sea Launch program. The joint venture of the Boeing Company and Russian, Ukrainian and Norwegian interests has scheduled its first launch this October.
"The commercial space market is booming," says Alexis Allen of the Aerospace Industries Association. As demand for satellite capacity for communications and entertainment increases, the 220 commercial and government satellites in space are expected to swell to as many as 1,900 - $1 trillion worth, by some estimates.
There is already an average three-year wait at the launch pad for satellites coming off the manufacturing line today.
As the US bolsters its launch capacity, American companies with satellites to launch could see further delay if the Senate approves legislation passed in the House last month banning US satellite exports to China. The Senate is expected to take up the matter soon.
Congress and the Justice Department are attempting to determine whether launch technology was illegally shared with China by Loral and Hughes Electronics in the aftermath of a 1996 launch failure. A 3-ton Loral communications satellite was destroyed in the crash of a Chinese rocket.