After decades of hype, the notion of raking in billions from doing business in space has hit a wall of stony realism. In short: There is no easy buck to be made in outer space. Only four years ago, a respected market research company confidently predicted that by the year 2000, annual sales by space businesses of all kinds could near $65 billion worldwide.
In a weightless vacuum, factories would produce new metal alloys, perfect crystals, and advanced semiconductor materials. The possibilities seemed limitless. It took the space shuttle Challenger's fiery demise to bring visionaries back to earth.
After the disaster, President Reagan booted commercial payloads off future shuttle flights and into the arms of private business. The result: Big aerospace companies revved up rocket production lines virtually mothballed during the height of the shuttle program.
Following the big boys, a flock of small launch companies, many staffed by former National Aeronautics and Space Administration personnel, began developing small rockets and ground services that serious investors could believe in.
George Koopman, a former Hollywood stunt man-turned-space entrepreneur, wanted a piece of the action, too. But his dream is also part of a new realism that has settled on this industry. Mr. Koopman, president of American Rocket Company in Camarillo, Calif., admits he was caught up to a degree in the hyperbole, like everyone else. His version: ``I want to be the Federal Express of outer space.''
Though Koopman is still keenly interested in that goal, he isn't talking much about it anymore. He's too busy testing a new rocket-motor design, proving to people that it works so that he can raise more financing. And Koopman's struggles are hardly unique.
The new realism of the post-Challenger era is that just as the auto industry has gone global, so too, the commercial space launch industry has become just another international market.
``The United States' share of the space launch business is going to be eroding,'' says Wolfgang DeMisch, an aerospace securities analyst with UBS Securities in New York. ``There are going to be a lot of collisions among nations and companies, and the guys with the most mass are going to bounce the others out of the ring.''
France, China, Japan, and the Soviet Union are eager to prove themselves as pioneers and space entrepreneurs. Each has the rockets, the money, and the political will to be a major player putting satellites, experiments, and humans beings in orbit. China's `right stuff'
Acting a bit more like capitalists every day, China's Great Wall Rocket Company has set up a Los Angeles office, and its salesmen are hunting for US clients.
China's space business got a boost two weeks ago when the Reagan administration agreed to allow US-made satellites to be flown aboard China's Long March rocket next year. In a truly international deal, the satellite division of Hughes Aerospace sold the satellites to Australian and Hong Kong companies, which in turn chose the Chinese rocket.
Yet, long-range concerns remain: Could China, the Soviet Union and France, whose operations are heavily subsidized, severely undercut the real cost for launch services and drive the US from the satellite launch industry?
``The Chinese drove a rocket right through the gaps in US space policy,'' says Melinda Gipson, editor of Space Business News, an industry newsletter. ``There needs to be some sort of comprehensive trade principles.''
Ms. Gipson and others say a Chinese launch costs about $20 million, compared with an average of $50 million on an American booster, and up to $100 million for a US-made Titan. Europe grabs half the market
Arianespace, the 13-member European consortium led by France, has about 44 satellites committed to fly on its Ariane rocket. The consortium will continue to capture about half of all future launches, analysts say. About 20 satellites are expected to be launched annually through the mid-1990s, they say.
While Gipson believes the US needs to protect its nascent space launch industry, others believe US companies need the competition to bring down costs and force the development of new products. But while officials in Washington ponder, options and time are running out.
``Time passes, and in the meantime the rest of the world is moving ahead,'' says Byron Lichtenberg, a payload specialist who has flown on the space shuttle and on the first Skylab. His Cambridge, Mass., company, Payload Systems, made headlines recently when it signed a contract to send up a crystal experiment aboard a Soviet Proton rocket next spring to the Mir space station.
``We didn't want to wait 10 years,'' Mr. Lichtenberg says. ``What it's going to take is a routine assured access to space at a reasonable cost. That's the bottom line.''
Some experts worry about the long-term implications if the US launch industry is undercut.
``This country can get left behind in the whole space-industry technology area if we don't come to some national resolve that we want to become a significant player in space,'' says Gary Miglicco, national coordinator for aerospace and space commercialization with Pete, Marwick & Main, a national consulting company. Wall Street not enthusiastic
Without a clear, firm government policy, the only thing colder than outer space has been Wall Street's lack of interest in companies trying to make a buck outside Earth's atmosphere. In the absence of big-time financing, wealthy individuals and a few large companies have funded new space companies. Financing for such start-ups has been difficult because of the coming election.
``Everyone is taking a wait-and-see attitude,'' says David Wicks, president of Criterion Investments, a Houston venture- capital firm specializing in space business. ``There's been so much jockeying between the White House and Congress it has made it difficult to invest.''
While the small companies struggle to get financing, companies like Martin Marietta, McDonnell Douglas, and General Dynamics are battling one another and overseas rocket builders for a slice of the billion-dollar market. Analysts say the US companies probably need five or six launches per year each to stay in the business. A shakeout is expected.
Foreign nations will purchase most of the US-made rockets fired into space beginning next March.
But the rockets will also carry aloft US-made satellites. With costs of rocket, satellite, and launch services as high as $200 million, a thriving US launch industry might help reduce the US trade deficit a bit.
``Each rocket one of these big US companies sells is the equivalent of importing at least 6,000 foreign cars,'' says John Egan, an industry consultant. ``At $50 million per launch, that's a helluva lot of Toyotas.''
But as big companies like McDonnell Douglas or entrepreneurs like Koopman prepare to blast into space, the questions overhanging them are: Will the US government continue to stay out of the way of private companies? Will the space station be funded?
``You cannot run a space program on a series of one-year budgets,'' says Jeff Manber, a former Commerce Department official who wrote a department report on space commercialization. Investing for the long haul
While government policy goes through fits, starts, and elections, the parallel result on Wall Street is the short-term mentality that requires quarter-to-quarter earnings gains.
``I visited Mitsui, one of largest Japanese trading companies in the world,'' Mr. Manber says. ``They were getting involved in space. I told them it would take seven to 10 years to turn a profit. The guy simply asked me if I knew that Mitsui had been formed in 1680.
``I told him I did not know it had been around so long. His response: `What is 10 years in 300?' This guy is planning a 30-year business plan.''
Walking through the sprawling Martin Marietta rocket factory nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills south of Denver, it is hard to imagine there could be a problem in the world for the US commercial launch industry.
The factory is big, bright, and chock full of huge, gleaming round aluminum hulls resting gently atop production-line carriers. A swarm of workers attends every weld and wire at this, the birthplace of the Titan expendable-launch vehicle.
As its name implies, the commercial Titan is a goliath of a rocket. It is considered the heavy lifter of the world launch industry and can shove more than 11,000 pounds into orbit. That's a bit more than France's Ariane, and far more than the Soviet Proton.
``If you start looking at a new vehicle like the Japanese H-2 or China's Long March, the customers in the marketplace have to view these with a large degree of uncertainty,'' says Brian Quinn, vice-president in charge of marketing in Martin Marietta's Commercial Titan division.
Mr. Quinn is confident that updated versions of the 30-year-old Titan design and upgrades of the factory (Martin is spending $20 million) will be enough to keep the company competitive against a new generation of rockets.
Yet there is concern. Everyone remembers what the Japanese accomplished in just a few years in the automobile industry.
``The United States, for many reasons, is losing its preeminence and is at serious risk of becoming a second-rate force in space,'' writes Bevin McKinney, an aerospace designer with American Rocket Company.
And Congress's Office of Technology Assessment says in a recent report: ``The United States has not developed a new rocket engine in over 15 years and the space program has followed rather than led other industrial sectors in the development and use of new light-weight, high-strength materials and automation and robotics.''
This is one reason a few experts worry that like the Big Three in the US auto industry, the three large US rocket builders could get blindsided. The long-term risk for the nation, say analysts, is that falling behind in space could undercut US competitiveness.
``More nations are using space for industrial purposes,'' says Manber. ``If we just sit around and don't move forward with routine access to space and long-duration facilities - we will have surrendered our competitive edge to our trading partners.'' CHART/ILLUSTRATIONS: Putting commerical satellites in space. 1) ARIANE 4: European Space Agency; Builder: Arianespace; Payload capacity: up to 9,259 lbs. to GTO*; Status: Operational since June 1988. *Geostationary transfer orbit, a temporary satellite orbit between low-earth orbit and permanent geostationary earth orbit. 2) H-1: Japan; Payload capacity: 1,213 lbs. to GEO**; Status: Operational since 1986. **Geostationary earth orbit, in which a satellite's speed matches the Earth's rotation, allowing the satellite to hold its position over a given location. 3) LONG MARCH 3: China; Payload capacity: 3,086 lbs. to GTO; Status: Operational since 1984. 4) PROTON: Soviet Union; Payload capacity: 4,409 lbs. to GTO; Status: Operational for over 20 years. 5) TITAN III: United States***; Builder: Martin Marietta; Payload capacity: 11,000 lbs. to GTO; Status: First commercial launch 1989. ***Other planned US launch vehicles include the smaller Atlas-Centaur (General Dynamics) and Delta (McDonnell Douglas) rockets, also scheduled for 1989 launches.