The Chinese government is actively soliciting satellite business from U.S. corporations in the wake of the Challenger shuttle disaster two months ago.
The government has sent a delegation to the United States and held talks with Western Union Corp. earlier this week. Two major satellite communications providers -- the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat) and Communications Satellite Corp. (Comsat) -- said they plan to talk with the Chinese about their launch capabilities.
The Chinese marketing efforts in the United States come shortly after China won its first commercial space venture in Europe. Two months ago, the Swedish Space Corp. agreed to use the Chinese to launch a Swedish Mailstar satellite.
The Challenger shuttle disaster in January, which left at least five governments or private companies looking for alternate ways to get their satellites into space, may have speeded up the plans of the Chinese government to market their Long March expendable-launch vehicles for U.S. companies, State Department and NASA officials said yesterday. However, these officials added, the Chinese had long been intending to seek new markets.
"They were planning on doing it anyway," said one NASA official. "Certainly the vacuum left by the shuttle accident may help them."
The source said NASA had already sent officials to see what China was doing in its space program, and that the Chinese also will "show us what they are doing because they respect NASA's technical expertise."
Neither NASA nor the State Department has taken an official position on the Chinese plan.
"China is one of the poorest countries on earth, but they are working at modernizing the country," said one State Department official. "It is not to say that, because they can launch geosynchronous satellites, they are at the cutting edge of launch capability. But it is a significant technical step."
Currently, only the United States, the Soviet Union, the European satellite consortium Arianespace Inc. and Japan are capable of putting a communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit, the official said.
The Chinese embassy specialist on China's satellite program could not be reached for comment yesterday about the delegation's visit to the United States or China's plans for the program.
The Chinese have had two successful launches of the Long March 3 vehicle -- suited to launching standard-sized communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit -- in the last few years, according to the State Department official. But China also will market its Long March 1 and 2 vehicles, which carry different-sized payloads, said NASA.
According to the State Department official, the Chinese are planning to offer a low-priced launch package, coupled with insurance provided by the Chinese. Insurance for satellite launches increasingly has become hard to obtain because of several failed efforts to launch the satellites into the proper orbit.
According to United Press International, China announced plans Jan. 22 to launch a Swedish communications satellite as its first commercial space venture. Peking has not said how much the launch will cost, but had earlier said it would charge 15 percent less than rates offered by NASA or Ariane, said UPI.
The Chinese are contacting a number of companies, according to NASA and the State Department. "They talked with Western Union and are going to visit others -- Hughes, Ford Aerospace, Martin Marietta, Comsat and Intelsat," said one NASA official.
Western Union Corp. spokesman Warren R. Bechtel yesterday said the company had met with the Chinese. "We had Westar VI-S scheduled to go up on the shuttle in June of 1986, so we are exploring all the alternatives for launch of that satellite and are not ruling anything out. The Chinese delegation is in the U.S. now, and we met with them earlier this week to learn more about their launch capabilities."
GTE Spacenet, which was to launch a satellite on the shuttle this fall, said it had not been contacted by the Chinese, and was still committed to the shuttle program. C. J. Waylan, president of GTE Spacenet, said he had some misgivings about Chinese capabilities.
"It would be unlikely they would be able to realistically launch any satellite in the near term because of compatibility of the satellite to the launch vehicle," Waylan said. "And that is not a simple matter."
Privately, industry and NASA officials say the Chinese have no proven track record in providing commerical launch services, and, technologically, they have a long way to catch up to competitors.
Another State Department source said the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, a body of NATO members and Japan based in Paris, would have to approve high-technology exports to communist countries.