French space firm charges unfair advantage for US space industry

The war of words between the United States and Western Europe over satellite launchers is escalating again. Arianespace, the French-dominated rocket firm, is charging that the American taxpayer is unfairly subsidizing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space shuttle.

Arianespace, which is responsible for selling the mainly French-built Ariane rocket, made the comment after hearing it had lost a lucrative satellite-launching contract to the US.

Intelsat, the international satellite communications organization, is to hire the US space shuttle to launch, on separate flights, two satellites in 1986. Putting the vehicles, members of the Intelsat VI series, into orbit will cost the organization some $110 million.

This, according to Intelsat, was ''appreciably less'' than the figure that Arianespace quoted for doing the same job. According to an Intelsat spokesman, price was the only factor dividing the two space vehicles.

Arianespace, based near Paris and 60 percent owned by French interests, asserts the space shuttle has an unfair advantage because of government subsidies. According to a spokesman for the company, the full cost of a shuttle mission works out to $250 million, a figure that should fall to $140 million by 1986.

Yet NASA recovers only a fraction of this in revenue from organizations whose satellites are taken into orbit by the craft. The maximum total revenue from one mission will come to no more than $70 million in 1986, even allowing for a proposed hike in prices.

By contrast, Arianespace says it receives no help from European governments in keeping its charges down. ''It is much more difficult for us to reduce our prices, and all we can do is to emphasize that in many ways Ariane is a better product,'' a spokesman said.

Ariane has a checkered history. Of six launches, two have failed. By contrast , all of the seven shuttle missions so far have been at least partially successful.

Arianespace still has a chance to win a further contract from Intelsat. The international organization says that in September it will place the orders for the launch of the remaining three members of the Intelsat VI series sometime in the late 1980s and early '90s.

The shuttle and Ariane are the main contenders for putting Intelsat's vehicles into orbit. But surprisingly, the USSR has indicated that Soviet Proton rockets would be available to the West for satellite launchings. The move could earn the USSR valuable foreign currency, although satellite experts in the West are still evaluating just how serious the Russians are about their offer.

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