Industry analysts and entrepreneurs who see outer space as the next business frontier say that the shuttle disaster may delay space commercialization one or two years but that the fatal accident's long-term impact will be slight.
"It's a setback psychologically; a brutal reminder of the risks involved," says Wolfgang Demisch, an aerospace analyst at First Boston Corp. in New York. "But, practically, this is the kind of setback we've had developing any kind of technology. Airplanes crash. Trains collide. You have to minimize the risks, but go on."
"It certainly doesn't help the situation, but I don't think the situation has been materially altered, either," said James P. Samuels, a Shearson-Lehmann analyst. "The business has been making good, steady progress over the last year. The commercial benefits of space still exist and appetite will remain strong."
Propelled primarily by defense contractors seeking commercial applications of aerospace technologies, several large companies and assorted entrepreneurs have begun to test the profit potential of space. For many, the shuttle was their bridge into space.
Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. and McDonnell Douglas Corp. are trying to manufacture novel drugs and chemicals of unprecedented purity; Deere & Co., a producer of farm equipment, has been exploring whether it can learn in the weightlessness of space how to cast better and stronger metals on earth.
In addition, the Reagan administration has aggressively pushed commercialization -- pointing to the shuttle as a starting point for venturesome companies.
By the year 2000, commercial revenue from space technology could top $50 billion, according to David W. Lippy, president of the Center for Space Policy, which is based in Cambridge, Mass.
But today, commercially viable applications of space technology are mostly in the satellite communications industry, and revenue totals only a fraction of Lippy's forecast.
For defense aerospace contractors -- who get the lion's share of the government's space contracts -- the Challenger disaster will have little impact, analysts said.
Demisch estimated, for example, that Rockwell International Corp. and Martin Marietta Corp. each get less than 10 percent of their annual sales from space contracts, and that Lockheed Corp., TRW Inc. and Hughes Aircraft Co. get less than 2 percent. Northrop Corp. of Los Angeles says it gets less than 1 percent.
These aerospace companies also have invested relatively small sums on space technology research, even though government space contracts are expected to increase dramatically during the next decade.
Demisch estimated that the aerospace industry spends about $40 million a year on space research -- only 10 percent of the estimated $400 million it has to spend "as mad money for long-term development projects."
John Simon, defense analyst at Seidler Amdec Securities in Los Angeles, agreed that the long-term impact of Tuesday's disaster will be slight.
"The economic lure of space doesn't change because of one disaster," he said. "We're going to explore and develop space because there's a pay-off in the manufacture of computers, drugs and who knows what else."
He said that the federal budget squeeze is a far greater threat to the future of the space program. Current contracts will boost the profits of defense contractors through 1988, but, after that, "with or without a space program, military spending cuts will push their earnings down," he said.
Space industry analysts and executives agreed that President Reagan's plan to build a multibillion-dollar space station by the mid-1990s will proceed, as will the shuttle program.
Most of the research money has been used to gain expertise in the space technology that the companies think the U.S. government -- particularly the Pentagon -- will want to invest in during the next 10 or 15 years. The exception among the major aerospace contractors is McDonnell Douglas, which has invested an estimated $50 million during the last few years to develop space-based drug manufacturing plants.