The year since Challenger. Space-lift competition grows

Huang Zuoyi spent most of last week at a space symposium here, listening attentively to talks on everything from trips to Mars to mining the moon. But in between sessions he had a more down-to-earth mission in mind: to tell anyone who would listen about China's budding space program and try to convince companies to send their satellites aloft atop Chinese rockets. Though the engineer associated with China's Ministry of Astronautics didn't sign up any new customers, his mere presence underscores the changing nature of the international space race.

As the United States struggles to revive its space program in the wake of the Challenger disaster, it faces growing competition from a host of emerging space powers.

Already, some fret that the US has fallen perilously behind the Soviets in many endeavors, including manned spaceflight.

``We have lost the lead we once had, and there is no good in pretending anything else,'' David Webb, a space expert at the University of North Dakota and member of the National Commission on Space, said here this week.

But Europe and Japan, and, to a lesser extent, India, Brazil and Canada, are making steady progress toward becoming space powers as well.

The shifting world order is opening up new opportunities for the US in space cooperation - but also new arenas of competition. Perhaps nowhere is the diversity more evident than in the high-stakes competition for commercial launch business.

The US, with unmanned rockets and the space shuttle, had the market to itself until 1981, when the European-developed Ariane rocket began launching commercial satellites. Now, with the first shuttle not scheduled to fly again for at least a year, others are moving in.

Ironically, the shuttle grounding has not provided a major windfall for the US's competitors. France's Ariane rockets were already largely booked through this decade. Other countries are just getting their programs in order. Nevertheless, if the US is tardy in getting its shuttle program up to full launch capacity - now scheduled for around 1992 - and if American government and private efforts to build a fleet of unmanned rockets don't happen quickly, other nations are expected to pick up the slack.

The French have captured about half the world's commercial satellite-launch business. They expect to hold onto that market share well into the 1990s. But Arianespace, the French company that sells launch slots on the Ariane rocket, is trying to rebound after a launch failure last May. Its next flight is scheduled for April.

With the US and French programs hobbled, the Chinese are moving forcefully into the picture with their Long March series of rockets. They are offering bargain-basement prices. But some experts think their relatively primitive technology and unfamiliar way of doing business will keep many companies from queueing up at Chinese launch pads.

Still, four US companies, one Swedish firm, and a Canadian company are currently interested in what the Chinese have to offer. Mr. Huang says the first launch of a foreign satellite will probably come in 1988.

The Japanese have made no major effort to market commercial launch services. But they are expected to do so with their new H-1 and H-2 rockets, scheduled to be ready by 1992. The two boosters would give them the weight-lifting capability of Western rockets.

The Japanese have some reservations about jumping into the commercial business, though. One reason is uncertainty over the demand for commercial launches. With fiber optics beginning to compete with satellites in the telecommunications field, there is some concern there won't be enough payloads to put up.

``Communication satellite needs will likely stay at the same level or decrease,'' says Tsuguo Tadakawa, head of Japan's National Space Development Agency office in Washington.

The latest entrant in the commercial-launch sweepstakes is the Soviet Union. Earlier this month, Moscow embarked on an aggressive sales campaign to try to entice customers. It is offering three rockets of varying power, as well as discount rates and insurance coverage.

Yet few experts expect many Western nations or companies to take them up on the offer, given the mutual suspicions between East and West and the difficulty of insuring technological secrets won't fall into Soviet hands.

Many countries are forging ahead in other space endeavors as well. While most stress the need for cooperation in the high frontier, there is a growing push for national autonomy. This is being driven by the belief that exploiting the heavens will bring uncalculable economic, political, and technological benefits.

As Bertrand de Monpluc, chief of international relations for the French National Center of Space Studies, said here: ``As with nuclear energy, no important nation or group of nations will remain so without space power.''

The 13-nation European Space Agency, for instance, is pursuing a vigorous program that could lead to full European autonomy by the turn of the century. Among elements of a 10-year plan it is working on: a powerful Ariane 5 lift rocket, the Hermes manned spaceplane, and the Columbus modules that will initially be a part of the US's international space station.

The Europeans are also talking about building their own space station, and China and Japan are considering manned space programs. Canada, which has no rockets, is active in the satellite business, remote-sensing, and is positioning itself to engage in a variety of commercial and scientific space endeavors. This year, Ottawa plans to establish a space agency to oversee its activities.

All this is throwing down the gauntlet to the US. Many of those meeting here last week suggested that the US should do much more to reestablish the space leadership role it crafted with the Apollo moon landings. If it doesn't, they warned, the consequences will be serious.

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