WASHINGTON -- President Reagan, opening America's space program to greater involvement by industry, ordered the way cleared Monday for commercial operation of unmanned rockets used to launch satellites.
Reagan, in a presidential directive, endorsed a plan that would let private interests take over the operation of a portion of the U.S. space program now being phased out by the government.
The directive orders government agencies to help develop a commercial industry in the ownership and operation of these space boosters to serve as a valuable backup to the government-run shuttle program.
The turnover of responsibility, which the White House portrayed as consistent with U.S. space policy and Reagan's emphasis on the private sector, would be overseen by a working group of officials from the State Department, NASA and other agencies.
The administration also announced earlier this year thatit is considering selling its network of civilian weather-watching and earth resource monitoring satellites to private industry. That plan has run into congressional opposition.
With the successful development of the reusable space shuttle as a platform for launching satellites into space, the government is ending its reliance on such longtime workhorses of the space program as the Delta, Atlas and Titan rockets.
Although the shuttle is expected to launch most satellites, many space authorities believe the demand for satellite launching services will continue to require use of the older, one-use-only rockets as well.
The shuttle program is now competing for some satellite launching business with an expendable rocket called Ariane developed by the European Space Agency and now built and marketed by Arianespace, a French company.
A four-month study by an inter-agency administration working group concluded the operation of these 'expendable launch vehicles' by commercial interests 'would offer substantial benefits' to industry and the federal govennment.
The existence of such a commercial enterprise 'would add to the economic vitality of the United States' and provide 'a more robust space launch capability', a White House announcement said.
The inter-agency study also concluded commercial operation of the satellite launchers would help maintain a high-technology industrial base, offer an edge against foreign competition and spawn numerous commercial spinoffs, 'providing substantial long-term economic benefits.'
'In summary,' the White House announcement said, 'partnership between the U.S. private sector and the U.S. government will strengthen the U.S. space launch capability, develop a major new industry, contribute favorably to the U.S. economy and maintain U.S. leadership in space transportation.'
Under terms of the plan approved by Reagan, the government would regulate commercial expendable rocket operations 'only to the extent required to meet its national and international obligations and to ensure public safety.'
Launch operations would be conducted from government facilities, with the government making available, on a reinbursable basis, equipment, tooling and other support services.