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Bill Would Put Most Launches Into Hands of Private Firms : Packard Wants Government Out of Rocket Business

June 20, 1989|ROBERT W. STEWART | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Ron Packard wants to help the federal government get out of the rocket-launching business.

The Carlsbad Republican, whose 43rd Congressional District includes the southern third of Orange County, believes that private aerospace companies should take over the task of launching almost all government payloads into space.

To achieve his goal, Packard last week introduced in the House the Space Transportation Services Purchase Act of 1989, which would require the federal government to buy private launch services for all of its space missions, except those involving national security or requiring the unique capabilities of the space shuttle.

If the measure becomes law, it could have significant impact in Orange County, where McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co. builds the Delta rocket, one of the three major launch vehicles used by the government. The company employs 8,000 people in Orange County.

Shift in Responsibility

McDonnell Douglas and two other American rocket makers already have sizable contracts to provide launch services for the U.S. military and federal agencies, but Packard's legislation could act as a further boost to growing efforts to "privatize" the U.S. space industry.

In addition to turning over most government launches to the aerospace companies, Packard's bill would require NASA and the Air Force--which have primary responsibility for space launches--to relinquish much of their launch oversight responsibility to the contractors.

The legislation would eliminate many of the complex accounting requirements of the federal procurement process, while maintaining government-set standards for safety. In many ways, Packard said, his bill would help create a space-launch industry analogous to the commercial airline industry--government-regulated but not government-run. Cost savings would be achieved,

"I feel that we're going to save a bundle of money . . . and we'll get a better product," said Packard, 58, a longtime member of the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology.

President Reagan revitalized the private sector when he ordered NASA out of the commercial launch market in the wake of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Satellite for India

The Huntington Beach-based McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co., a division of the St. Louis-based aerospace giant, is scheduled to preside over the first commercial launch of a space satellite in the United States on June 29 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. For a fee of about $50 million, one of the company's rockets is scheduled to boost into orbit a communications satellite for the government of India.

Packard said his legislation, in addition to providing McDonnell Douglas and other major aerospace firms with contracts to launch government satellites, would help U.S. rocket makers compete for business with foreign launchers, such as the privately owned Arianespace of France. That company has already launched more than 20 commercial payloads and has commitments to carry at least 30 more.

China is offering launch services for commercial payloads, and at least two American companies have committed to send satellites aloft on Chinese Long March rockets. The Soviet Union also plans to offer launch services for commercial payloads.

"Right now, the government is sponsoring virtually all launches and all payloads," Packard said. "We think that's holding back America's ability to compete with foreign launch."

If his plan is successful, Packard said, he envisions the major rocket-building companies--McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics Space Systems in San Diego and Martin Marietta Commercial Titan Systems in Denver--banding together, perhaps with other, smaller companies, to form consortiums to launch both government and commercial payloads.

Although Packard said he has the support of the three firms, a McDonnell Douglas spokeswoman in Huntington Beach said the company is still studying the legislation.

Despite the intended benefits of the bill, Packard conceded that pushing it through Congress will not be easy.

'Just Beginning'

"The idea of the commercialization and privatization of space is not going to go away, it's just beginning," Packard said. "If they see the bill beginning to move, then I believe NASA would come aboard and say, 'Hey, the train is moving . . . it's time for us to get on board and direct it down the right track.' "

In a letter to the House space committee earlier this month, for example, NASA asserted that there are not enough private companies with the technical expertise to sell the government complete launch services instead of simply providing the rockets.

"NASA takes exception to the premise: 'This nation has a mature launch services industry,' " an enclosure in the letter said.

NASA officials had no immediate comment Monday on the Packard bill.

The Air Force currently contracts with private aerospace companies to handle launch services for perhaps half of the payloads it puts into space, Air Force sources told The Times. However, the sources said the service would be concerned about turning over too much responsibility for launch oversight and rocket specifications to private businesses.

Legislation enacted last year amended the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act to require the government to permit private contractors to use--for a fee--government rocket-launching facilities. There are currently no privately owned launch facilities in the country, said Catherine Rawlings, who works on the staff of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. She said both Hawaii and Florida are studying plans to build launch facilities.

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