The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, unable to launch commercial satellites because of the Challenger shuttle disaster, is considering resuming production of Delta rockets as part of a new effort to shift grounded payloads from the shuttle onto unmanned rockets.
Agency officials confirmed yesterday that NASA is ordering at least one Delta rocket from McDonnell Douglas Corp. to launch an Indonesian communications satellite early next year.
They said they are studying a proposal to order other Deltas to handle grounded shuttle customers who have been considering turning to France, China or the Soviet Union to launch their payloads into orbit.
"We're looking at all the other shuttle customers to see if we can accommodate them," said Azeezaly S. Jaffer, spokesman for NASA's office of commercial programs. "The Delta is the rocket we would be looking at."
The plan to revive the 1960s-vintage Delta comes a few days after the Air Force announced its plans to order a fleet of medium-size unmanned rockets. An Air Force official predicted yesterday that the competition for the initial order of 12 new unmanned rockets will lower production costs and will spur development of a private U.S. launch business that could relieve NASA's growing backlog of commercial satellites awaiting launch.
The Reagan administration has been deadlocked for months on a post-Challenger program that is supposed to include heavier reliance on unmanned rockets. The two developments this week represent what some officials and aerospace contractors described yesterday as a revival of unmanned launches -- a move NASA had long resisted in its attempts to build up the shuttle as the nation's primary launch vehicle.
"This is the first time we've seen any forward movement since the shuttle accident," said Rick Endres, director of corporate development for Transpace Carriers Inc., a Lanham firm that owns the right to use Delta rockets for private launches. "It's going to get the (Delta) production lines started again. . . . It's the start of the return to ELVs"(expendable launch vehicles).
Some of NASA's concern has been triggered by intense foreign competition that is threatening to cost the U.S. virtually all of the international market in commercial satellite launchings. With the shuttle grounded for at least another year, and probably longer, customers have been signing up to use the French Ariane rocket and China's Long March rocket. Several U.S. firms that were scheduled for the shuttle are talking to the French and Chinese because they have found themselves with no other way to get their payloads into orbit.
NASA officials said yesterday's offer to launch the Indonesian satellite was driven primarily by foreign policy concerns and was pressed upon NASA by Secretary of State George Schultz. Indonesia's existing Palapa satellite -- the primary communications link for the 13,000 island archipelago -- has not been operating properly and is expected to fail completely sometime next spring. Another Palapa was launched on the shuttle in 1984 but also malfunctioned.Its replacement was to be launched on a shuttle flight this month.
"The Indonesians have told us they really wanted this up in time for their national elections in April 1987," said one State Department offical. "They're totally reliant on this satellite for their telephone and television communications. Without this, a sizeable part of the archipelago would be out of communication."
Despite a May 3 accident that destroyed a $57.5 million weather satellite, the Delta has long been considered NASA's most reliable launch vehicle with 177 missions dating back to 1961. As part of NASA's earlier policy of promoting the shuttle, Delta launches were being phased out, and only three more were scheduled, two this year and one in the summer of 1987 that would be used by the Pentagon for a Strategic Defense Initiatve experiment.
Under the new plan, the Delta scheduled to be used for SDI next year will be transfered to the Palapa launch early in 1987. McDonnell Douglas Corp., which manufactures the rocket, will partially restart its production line at Huntington Beach, Calif., to finish work on one of three unassembled Deltas that will then be used for the SDI launch.
NASA officials said yesterday that the agency is considering ordering other unassembled Deltas from McDonnell Douglas to launch satellites for at least three other shuttle customers -- including India, Western Union and the American Satellite Co.
While the Delta has been grounded since the May 3 accident, McDonnell Douglas officials said yesterday the rocket could be ready to launch again within the next few months. The accident has been blamed on an electrical short in the main engine.