The first privately financed placement of satellites into earth orbit may be just two years downrange.
The first step in this space-flight dream of a dozen Texas cattle ranchers and oilmen came true Sept. 9 with a 10.5-minute test flight over the Gulf of Mexico.
The Houston-based Space Services Inc. of America (SSI) launched a 1,097-pound mock payload atop a converted Minuteman I rocket motor to try out its 37-foot launch vehicle - and to test the rockets and communications components supplied by an international network of private companies. Despite a one-day delay caused by a faulty battery, Conestoga I followed a smooth countdown and liftoff with a textbook climb to a 195-mile suborbital altitude.
SSI's next step is to line up more investors for the switch from test flight to launching commercial satellites at a profit. The firm needs more money to design and purchase the vehicle components needed to place its first satellite into the 22,300-mile orbit used by commercial satellites.
So far, SSI has spent over $6 million on its race into space. The bill for Conestoga I alone added up to $2.5 million. Another $1.2 million vaporized in August 1981, when the attempted test flight of SSI's first rocket ended in an explosion on the launch pad.
SSI founder and board chairman David Hanna says the first commercial payload may be launched from Hawaii rather than from the present Matagorda Island site 150 miles southwest of Houston.
Conestoga I mission director Donald K. (Deke) Slayton, a former astronaut, says SSI has proved that the private sector can work well with such federal agencies as NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and the State Department. For last week's successful flight, SSI used a Minuteman I second-stage solid-fuel rocket motor supplied by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for $340,000.
SSI officials say such cooperation is a key step in adding launch capability to the private sector's already heavy involvement in satellite operation.
SSI has several advantages over NASA in its quest for commercial customers. With a launch vehicle designed to place a single 600-pound satellite into orbit, SSI plans to offer a no-waiting-line service that can be tailored to an individual customer's needs. Satellites launched via NASA must be booked six years in advance.
But the risks involved in putting satellites into orbit showed up clearly Sept. 10, when a French Arianne rocket carrying two satellites crashed into the Atlantic off South America shortly after launch.