Rising Space Exploration Enthusiasm Provides Boost for Business of Space

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Enthusiasm for space exploration is rising once again. The pictures and accounts of Neptune and the ice volcanoes of its moon Triton inspired renewed support for space. And President Bush, on last month's anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, gave it focus by setting a long-term goal of a mission to Mars.

The business of space is getting a boost also. On Sunday McDonnell Douglas picked up a $50 million fee for its Delta rocket's launch of a communications satellite for a commercial customer, British Satellite Broadcasting. McDonnell Douglas has orders for eight more launches and is bidding for a ninth in Brazil.

It is not alone in the business. Martin Marietta's big Titan rocket will launch two satellites at once in November, has orders for three more such dual launches and is negotiating for a fourth. General Dynamics has 28 launches backlogged for its Atlas rocket, 10 of them for a Navy project with Hughes Aircraft.

And small firms are very active, with sounding rockets that carry industrial experiments into the zero-gravity conditions of the suborbital atmosphere. American Rocket Co., of Camarillo, Calif., will launch experiments for Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Strategic Defense Initiative on Sept. 20. Space Services Inc. of Houston - former astronaut Deke Slayton's firm - successfully sent up a rocket in March carrying eight experiments for the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

So are all systems go for a boom in space? Not quite. What is happening today is an industrial revival from the aftermath of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986. U.S. rocket makers now see ``an attractive albeit thin market,'' says Alan Lovelace, general manager of General Dynamics space systems division. But they recognize that today's full order books are the result of the backlog from Challenger's aftermath, when nothing was launched and that when things settle down, the orders will be a trickle. Hughes Aircraft, the leading satellite maker with more than half the 40 commercial satellites now in space, estimates about five launches a year.

Yet today's renewed enthusiasm is important, providing an opportunity for U.S. industry to begin the real work of the next decade, which will be laying the groundwork of space platforms and communications systems for the wide-ranging exploration of space that is sure to come in the 21st century.

And the revival is timely. Competitors have been active. The European space consortium, Arianespace - funded by 13 individual nations - leads the world; it has put up 23 satellites in the last four years, and has orders to launch almost four dozen more. …