Payoffs from payloads: brokers scanning the space frontier

''Space: The New Frontier,'' the ad boldly proclaims. No, this isn't a plug for the latest ''Star Trek'' movie. Shearson Lehman/American Express is running ads announcing the publication of a monthly investment report on space ventures.

Of late, the commercialization of space has been a hot topic in the press. But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration space station, although supported by the Reagan administration, is still but a glimmer in a designer's eye. It will probably be the early 1990s before the platform circles Earth.

So is there a space investment opportunity now?

Sure, if the investment is in communications satellites. The technology is known, the risks relatively predictable.

But if one's stargazing goes much further - into the realm of launch vehicles or made-in-space products, say - the outlook becomes hazy.

''Other than communication satellites, you won't see a flood of space-oriented deals until the space station is in orbit,'' says Jerome Simonoff , vice-president of Citicorp Industrial Credit.

Nonetheless, some speculative investors have lined up at the launch pad. Venture-capital involvement is a ''litmus test of financial community interest, '' says David Lippy, president of the Center for Space Policy (which is the source of the Shearson space report), in Cambridge, Mass.

According to Mr. Lippy, in 1980 space ventures attracted some $10 million. By 1983 the number topped $100 million. And he predicts that when 1986 rolls around , $500 million to $1 billion will be sunk into space projects.

Shearson, in fact, was behind one recently bankrolled space project. It put together a $24 million limited-partnership syndicate package to finance Orbital Sciences Corporation, a start-up with a satellite launch vehicle under development.

But Shearson analyst James P. Samuels says that generally ''it's premature to be taking positions in stock.''

''We're going to have to wait for another round of activity - when space station development starts. Then you might see a $30 million-a-year company get a $15 million contract to fabricate parts for McDonnell Douglas,'' Mr. Samuels says.

How soon? ''Within the next 12 to 18 months you might see some of these contracts let,'' he estimates.

According to John J. Egan, there may be more imminent investment options. Mr. Egan, manager in the commercial space planning group at Coopers & Lybrand, which has been doing consulting work for NASA, suggests upper-stage rockets (which boost a payload from the shuttle's relatively low orbit into geosynchronous orbit, 22,300 miles above Earth) hold some promise.

Egan likes Astrotech International in Pittsburgh, which is on the American Exchange. ''It's backed by the son of the founder of Rockwell. They're developing an upper-stage rocket and have a facility outside the cape (Canaveral) where they do ground processing for satellite launches.''

Over the last few years, a number of highly publicized small ''junkyard'' rocket vehicle companies have sprung up. The do-it-yourself approach has caught the public's fancy and attracted a few willing investors. The idea is to provide a cheap alternative to NASA's shuttle (or the European Ariane). Unfortunately, up to this point most of the money put into these rockets has burned on the launch pad.

''The first thing you learn about space is that it is expensive,'' says Egan. ''People trying to do this on a shoestring are fighting an uphill battle.''

In this commercial launch arena, he cites General Dynamics, Martin Marietta, and Transpace Carriers as more likely contenders with NASA and Ariane. These companies are using tried and tested rockets - the Delta, Titan, and Atlas Centurion.

But launch-vehicle concerns have a cloud hanging over their earnings outlook: government policy. ''Will NASA change their rates and undercut private industry? Will Ariane, with its government support, cut their rates?,'' wonders Samuels at Shearson. Such unresolved questions make the economics of these ventures uncertain.

Finally, the area generating the most excitement is furthest from reality. The space station offers the potential for developing ''wonder'' drugs, pure semiconductor crystals, exotic chemicals, and metals. But space-material processing is simply at the research-and-development stage.

For instance, Micro-Gravity Research Associates is often mentioned for its out-of-this-world plans to develop gallium arsenide semiconductors. The Center for Space Policy estimates this industry could gross $3.1 billion in annual revenues by 2000. But Micro-Gravity is years away from production - and is privately held.

In fact, with a few exceptions, only the large aerospace companies have deep enough pockets to be dabbling in this area. ''The payback for materials processing is fairly long,'' says Egan. ''The players will be the major corporations. The McDonnell Douglases and the Johnson & Johnsons - companies that can afford to stay in the game over the long haul.''

At Shearson, Mr. Samuels agrees, adding, ''To invest in such firms as Rockwell, Lockheed, TRW, RCA, Raytheon, and Boeing on the basis of their R&D investment in space couldn't be justified, because it's such a small percentage of their business.''

Most analysts agree that Wall Street has yet to be convinced that payloads will bring adequate payoffs. The Shearson monthly report, says David Lippy, is a way to educate the investment community and generate support. ''It gets the information into the hands of people that can provide the funding.''

But John Egan says: ''A banker will look at each deal separately, and no amount of general information will change his evaluation style.''

Or as Mr. Simonoff put it: ''Pizza Hut is still more attractive than space development.'' And Mr. Egan adds, ''Space projects are not for the very conservative financial institution or very conservative investor. It's not a pension fund investment.''

Yet some say these are exactly the large pools of money that need to be tapped for commercial space projects to get off the ground. ''Two things will have to happen to cause the investent community to become involved,'' says Simonoff at Citicorp. ''First, the costs must come down. Second, you need an adequate supply of insurance.''

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