Sale of US satellites to industry: pie in the sky?
President Reagan wants to sell the US earth resources and weather satellites to private industry, but he is likely to find few takers. Such a sale has been widely discussed for more than a year. Yet only the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat) has made a firm offer. As Simon Ramo, a founder and director of TRW Inc., has pointed out, the present government-owned satellite system is not perceived as commercially viable.
Even Comsat seems to share this view. Its proposal, submitted to the Department of Commerce in October, makes it clear that the company would buy the existing system only to scrap it. However, it would take 5 to 10 years to replace the current system with facilities Comsat says would be more efficient. During that transition period, the company wants the government to underwrite the business.
Thus, in making formal announcement of its intention to sell the satellites, the administration is not responding to strong commercial pressures. It is merely opening what is likely to be an extended debate with Congress, controversy with consumer advocates such as Ralph Nader (who has already called the plan ''a rip-off''), and long negotiations with Comsat or other potential buyers.
The lucrative communications satellite business, in which Comsat leads, already represents private enterprise in orbit. However, private groups, such as Bell Telephone Laboratories, carried out much of the development. The government has developed weather and earth resources (Landsat) satellites.
The notion of selling the weather satellites seems quixotic to staff people of the National Environmental Satellite Service - civil servants whose jobs might be at stake. At a recent Landsat conference at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, such experts were shaking their heads in bewilderment.
''I can't get through to the White House or OMB (Office of Management and Budget) to have the rationale explained to me,'' one senior executive remarked in an off-the-record comment. He added, ''They won't return my phone calls.''
The Landsat system, on the other hand, was always considered as having commercial possibilities. But the lack, up to now, of a clear policy on ownership made its future uncertain.
Gordon Law, a space analyst with the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, explains that Comsat's offer reflects a long-term view. Landsat operations would not, at first, be commercially viable. Comsat needs the weather satellites as well so that steady sales of data to the government provide adequate income, he says.
Comsat is ''up front'' about all this. Its proposal states that success is possible ''only if both weather and land systems are transferred (to Comsat) and combined.''
Comsat planners consider the present satellites and their ground stations inefficient. They would replace the entire system with what they describe as a more effective, slimmed down, setup. Comsat would pay $250 million to $350 million for the present system's assets. It projects a ''likely'' cost saving to the government ''on the order of $1 billion (in 1982 dollars) . . . over the first 10 years.''
But Comsat has caveats. It wants the government, in effect, to guarantee initial revenues by a long-term contract to buy its data. It suggests an annual data price of $315 million to $330 million a year, although the actual price would be negotiated. Comsat also wants minimum government regulation. It argues that contract terms can protect the public and guarantee meeting US international obligations to provide weather data and serve present Landsat users.
Comsat also wants quick action. It urges that legislation be passed this year so that it can take over by 1984.
Skeptics such as Dr. Ramo note that while the public interest and longstanding international obligations are a prominent part of the business, it is not at all clear how much can be left to the discretion of a private company. ''In the long term,'' Ramo says, ''the government must be in the chairmanship position.''