The chairman of Communications Satellite Corp. has proposed a private-sector takeover of the federal government's land observation and meterological programs, satellite efforts that cost the government about $450 million a year to operate.
Although Comsat, the District-based satellite communications firm, privately proposed the transfer before officials of the Office of Management and Budget earlier this year, Joseph Charyk, Comsat's chairman, publicly announced the plan for the first time to a joint House-Senate hearing last week.
"If implemented, we believe our plan could substantially reduce overall federal expenditures and increase the federal tax base as a result of new companies entering the market, as well as from increased earnings from existing companies," Charyk told the House and Senate technology and space committees.
"Users would benefit from our plans to improve the timeliness of data and increase the diversity of data products," he said. "In addition, we would seek aggressively to implement new technology and to improve our data acquisition capabilities.
"Such technical improvements, coupled with a vigorous marketing effort, will accelerate the commercialization of remote sensing applications, thereby strengthening U.S. leadership in commercial space applications and exerting a positive influence on our economy."
The hearings are part of a congressional effort to sort through complex problems surrounding the nation's remote sensing and weather statellite programs. Michael Halbouty, a housing consulting geologist and petroleum engineer, told the panel the nation's "civil remote sensing program is in a shambles because of gross ineptitude and negligent management that stem from lack of clear government policy and executive direction."
The programs in question are run by the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA's Landsat satellites will supply much of the data used in the two programs when they become fully operational next year.
Although the details of the proposal were described only generally by Charyk, a presidential decision to sell or transfer the government programs to the private sector could be a boon to Comsat. There is, however, some opposition among corporate users of satellite data to the Comsat proposal.
Charyk likened the new proposal with the government's 1962 decision to set up Comsat as a means of allowing the private sector a major role in satellite development. The proposal would merge the NASA and NOAA system, a move that Charyk said would eliminate duplicative facilities.
The combination also would raise the value of the data to users, such as agricultural and petroleum concerns. "The private sector can more effectively and more economically meet both government and commercial needs, and certainly will have the necessary incentive to efficiently develop the private market," he said.
But Charyk also warned that the plan, called Earthstar, is not financially feasible without a federal commitment to buy significant portions of the date produced by the satellite program and contribute to its development through research. Further, the Comsat chairman said speedy congressional action on the proposal, through legislation, would help the nation's competition with other countries competing in the satellite market.
The plan would require Comsat to review a variety of facilities connected with the government programs. A spokesman said the company and the government would have to negotiate a price for the purchase of the facilities.