Cloudy future overshadows shuttle success

The short-term glow of success following the recent Challenger shuttle mission is being dimmed by NASA's uncertainty over the long-term commercial viability of the shuttle program. There are three reasons for this uncertainty:

The inability of the shuttle to recover actual cost of a single mission, even though NASA will soon charge customers $71 million for a full payload bay. (The total cost for a shuttle mission is about $200 million.)

The European Space Agency's Ariane launch vehicle has matured and is taking away business NASA hoped to get.

The Soviets and the Chinese are entering the competition for space launch business, and the Japanese are working hard to catch up.

The Challenger mission that ended last Tuesday was the 19th shuttle mission in a series that should have reached more than twice that number by now, according to the December 1980 projection of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Launch delays and cancellations have cut deeply into NASA's hopes to have its shuttle service running with airline-like regularity by this time. Last year, five of 10 planned missions actually left the pad. This year's 12-mission schedule has been cut to 9. Even that number depends on the 5 remaining missions lifting off more or less on schedule.

Meanwhile, foreign competition in the launch-services market has grown strongly. Twenty-one communications satellites are scheduled to be placed in orbit this year. Western Europe's Ariane rocket is scheduled to launch nine of them; the 12 remaining are planned for shuttle launches.

Other spacefaring nations are challenging both NASA and Arianespace Inc. -- the company that manages the launch business for the European Space Agency (ESA). China offers rides on its Long March rockets. Japan has expressed interest in entering the market. And, in what may be the stiffest competition of all, the Soviet Union is quoting a launch price of $10 million each for Inmarsat maritime communications satellites, which serve commercial shipping worldwide. That is about half the shuttle or Ariane bi d. The Soviet Union is the fifth largest shareholder in the 43-nation Inmarsat system, after the United States, Britain, Norway, and Japan. So Inmarsat provides the Soviets with an easy entry into the launch-services marketplace.

NASA Administrator James M. Beggs and shuttle program officials readily concede that program delays and the rise of international competition have seriously eroded the shuttle's commercial competitiveness. They now face two major challenges -- achieving launch reliability and setting the ``right'' price for the service. Of these, the technical problems of launching are the easier to solve.

Malfunctions tend to be minor faults and glitches rather than major design deficiencies. These are methodically investigated and corrected as they arise. For example, the engine heat sensors believed to have given bad readings during Challenger's recent launch will be replaced by better units. Moreover, Atlantis is due to join the shuttle fleet for a Sept. 19 military mission if it passes its ``hot firing'' engine test Sept. 9 at the Kennedy Space Center. And Columbia returns to service with a Dec. 20 f light. With a full complement of four orbiters, a second launch pad at Kennedy, and a new pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (for launch of satellites into polar orbits), NASA should be in position to reach its goal of 24 launches a year by 1989.

Even that launch rate, however, would leave the agency far short of the 500 missions it had originally projected through 1991. NASA set the $38 million (1982 dollars) ``introductory'' price it has been charging for a full commercial payload on the assumption that shuttle program costs could be spread over 500 missions. If they have to be spread over only 165 missions or so by 1991, as now estimated, even the price hike to $71 million soon to go into effect will be much too low. Total cost of a single mi ssion may run to $200 million or more.

The Department of Transportation would like to see a price of $150 million for a full payload so that a government-subsidized shuttle won't stifle the emergence of a private launch-service industry.

At this writing, NASA was awaiting an imminent presidential decision as to what it could charge for shuttle services after 1988. The agency would like to hold to something like $73.2 million, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to meet Ariane competition and a potential Soviet challenge.

For their part, Arianespace officials feel they won a round last month when President Reagan formally certified that ESA was not violating international agreements by unfairly subsidizing the Ariane. Arianespace vice-president Douglas Heyden goes even further, insisting his price is set to recover full costs of launch services and all rocket hardware except for costs of ESA's general launch range support. This reinforces Europe's contention that it is the US shuttle services that are ``unfairly'' subsid ized.

Even the Department of Defense (DOD), whose business Mr. Beggs has said is vital to shuttle finances, is putting pressure on NASA to hold launch prices down. DOD has won the right to maintain its own unmanned launch capability partly because the shuttle cannot guarantee to lift off on schedule and partly because of costs. Air Force Undersecretary Edward C. Aldridge Jr. told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee last spring that he expected to gain ``high confidence of placing 10 high-priority n ational-security satellites into orbit for the additional equivalent cost of one or two [shuttle-launched] satellites.''

The Air Force, which has been paying NASA $55 million per DOD mission, agreed to use one-third of the shuttle's annual launch capacity after 1988 as a condition for acquiring new Titan expendable launch vehicles. But NASA cannot afford to raise its charges much as it bargains with DOD to set military launch prices for that period.

As the recent mission illustrated, the space shuttle is a national resource serving a variety of US needs. It carries out international scientific missions in which the US is a partner. It serves the military. And it is the essential surface-to-orbit truck for building the space station President Reagan has directed NASA to have ready by 1992. Yet it must also compete commercially.

Under the circumstances, there seems little doubt that the shuttle will continue to be subsidized. No realistically competitive launch price could recover the costs of a program with such a varied purpose. 30{et

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.