Congress Eyes Space Aid

Cash-strapped Congress is trying to give the space industry a deregulatory boost

The infotech industry's ventures into space could get a boost if Congress passes its draft Space Commercialization Promotion Act.

The 80-page draft act would ease the establishment of commercial rocket-launching centers; promote NASA's use of commercial data and technology; help industry hire experts recently retired from NASA; and suppress future regulation of the satellite-navigation industry and the emerging satellite-observation industry.

The Space Commercialization Promotion Act won't squeeze through the crowded congressional calendar this year, but will likely be seriously considered next year, said industry officials. The act is sponsored by Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., chairman of the House Science Committee. However, Walker won't be pushing the bill through next year because he is retiring in November.

Clinton administration officials said they have launched a wide range of space business policy initiatives and have termed the bill a good basis for negotiations. Although the White House "has done a good job with policy[making], the problem is that they are not following it," said one committee staff member.

U.S. industry spent roughly $7.5 billion on space-related business in 1995, mostly for the procurement and launch of commercial communications satellites. Overall spending is expected to rise rapidly during the next five years as U.S. firms create new satellite-based, mobile phone networks and navigation systems. Also, the launch of remote-sensing satellites modeled on the government's secret spy satellites is expected to spark a new market for the collection, sale and processing of highly detailed maps and photographs.

The main driver is the fast-growing communications industry, which plans to orbit several constellations of data-relay satellites in the next few years.

For example, Space Systems/Loral, which is partly owned by Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., plans to begin launching its 48-satellite Globalstar network of satellites in 1998. Also, the Air Force-developed Global Positioning System of navigation satellites should create a navigation industry with revenues of roughly $10 billion by 2000, according to estimates prepared by the Washington-based U.S. GPS Industry Council.

By 2000, the commercial space industry could provide 40 percent of U.S. spending on space, said Scott Pace, a space expert at the Rand Corp.'s Critical Technologies Institute.

However, the commercial space industry is too complex for anyone to estimate the economic benefits of the proposed act, Pace said.

The commercial space industry may also be too commercial for the U.S. government to have any influence, said John Pike, who tracks space issues for the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. "Either commercial space is commercially viable, or it isn't.... I don't think there is anything the U.S. government can do one way or another to help that market," he said.

"There appear to be a number of areas -- including space commercialization, commercial spaceports, global position system policy and remote sensing -- where concepts in the discussion draft [of the bill] can form a basis for common ground," said Skip Johns, associate director for technology at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Under the White House's guidance, NASA has already begun technology-sharing negotiations with industry, said Johns.

The White House also has deregulated the satellite-navigation and remote-sensing industries, and is developing plans for commercial space-launch centers, Johns said at a July 31 hearing before the House Science Committee's space and astronautics panel.

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