The news from outer space is not good.
One of our birdies is missing.
We may have to postpone the '80s for a couple of years. Please stand by.
Video rangers continued to search space yesterday, with radar and telemetry devices, for RCA's Satcom III, the one-ton, $50-million communications satellite launched from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 6 but yet to meet its little date with destiny.
Nobody knows where the dang thing is, but plenty of people care. Entrepreneurs in the ever-burgeoning cable TV industry had bought out all 24 of the satellite's transponders -- the gizmos that bounce a signal from one part of the planet Earth to other parts -- months in advance of the launch. They had expected Satcom III to be perking right along in January.
Now they are stuck with a space-age case of who snuffed cock robin.
"The absolute worst thing possible is that the sucker's blown up," said a cable TV spokesman yesterday from Disneyland, where 5,500 cable gamblers are meeting in convention. Bye-bye birdie is not the tune they were hoping to hear.
"These are the kinds of things that bring us all back to the real world," groaned Robert L. Schmidt, former president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA). But Schmidt and other sources were anxious to point out that even if Satcom III never makes another appearance in the universe, the blow to cable TV growth will be discomforting but hardly crippling.
And yet the failure of this particular bird has to be considered a setback for an industry that is expected to show spectacular growth in the '80s. Satellites are used commonly now not only for sending back news reports from distant hell-holes like Iran, but also to link cable systems throughout the country in networks that can be established at the flick of a switch.
Among those who had booked passage on Satcom III was yachtsman-broadcaster Ted Turner, who planned to use it for his new 24-hour-a-day news network starting in June 1980. Now Turner will have to try, in the venacular of the business, to "juggle" and "tier" the space used on another satellite for his "Superstation," Channel 17 in Atlanta. "He seems a little bit concerned," one observer recklessly understated.
Other clients in line for Satcom III include two religious networks. "I guess they didn't pray hard enough," said an RCA spokesman, who denied however that the satellite failure was an act of God or even that the bird is officially a dead duck.
What could have happened? Barring unforeseen birdnapping by SMERSH, THRUSH, or some other devious mythical gadfly, cable sources say the satellite could have been set off course at it approached its pre-arranged orbit, 22,300 miles above earth; or it could have "self-destructed," in the language of "Mission: Impossible"; or the poor thing could have inadvertently flipped over like a turtle, in which case it is directed toward outer space and not back at earth.
In that case the satellite would be useless unless there is a sudden demand for "I Love Lucy" reruns on Jupiter.
At the cable convention, people are trying to take the bad news with some degree of good humor.
"I guess it's just going to join Judge Carter and Amelia Earhart," noted one NCTA official.
During a slide show by a representative of COMSAT, a rival satellite company, guests speculated that the clicker being used to change the slides was actually blowing up Satcom III at that very moment. Competitors like AT&T -- who we all know will stop at nothing -- were also jokingly being blamed, and intervention by Ayatollah Khomeini has not been ruled out either, on the grounds that he might as well be blamed for everything.
Also from strife-torn Disneyland, current NCTA President Thomas Wheeler said there are many contingencies available to satellite users who'd had their bird pulled out from under them. Or over them.
"You'll see a scramble, a lot of dislocations, a great juggling act, but not a delay in services," Wheeler said. "People will be trying to buy someone else's transponder, or maybe get on Anik, the Canadian bird. People will have to reorient their dishes somewhat."
(That has nothing to do with kitchen design. Dishes are the big round receivers that pull a satellite's signal to Earth.)
NASA charged RCA $19.9 million to launch Satcom III. This money, a NASA spokesman said yesterday from Goddard Space Center, is not refundable: "Most of it has already been paid" in convenient monthly installments.
Fortunately for RCA, the satellite is insured by Lloyds of London for more than its $50-million market value, since it would have brought in millions in additional revenue during its anticipated eight-year life span.
RCA had launched Satcom III nine months ahead of schedule because the demand for satellite space is so intense. A company spokesman said yesterday that if Satcom III is lost, it just means work will be stepped up all that much more urgently on Satcom IV and Satcom V. Orders for space on Satcom IV were already being taken while III was still on the old drawing board, whence it may return.
Among the other clients for Satcom III were Time Inc.'s Home Box Office, Warner Cable, and a pay TV service called Showtime. But these firms all have space on other satellites. Hardest hit will be such new undertakings as Black Entertainment Televison, a Washington-based minority programming service that will now have to piggyback on somebody else's channel.
"It's been a hellish five days," one cable spokesman said in Anaheim. "Everyone's holding their breath. But when people hear that the all-cable satellite is down, they assume the industry is down the tubes, too. That is not the case. This just means some delay, that's all."
Once upon a time, satellites were novelties in this galaxy and their launchings were events. Not any more. NASA says there are now 10,044 "payloads" in orbit around the Earth, another 61 in "deep space," which is not a government informant but a term for things orbiting other planets or the sun.
"We haven't got to the stage where we can look for the thing yet," the NASA spokesman said. "NORAD in effect has to find the thing first, then we can use the C-band to scan-track it." (are you following this?) Then we can compute an orbit and give that to RCA."
There is only the smallest conceivable chance that Satcom III might get homesick and come back to Earth a la Skylab, but it probably wouldn't hurt to get those lead-lined derbies out of the closet just in case.
In the meantime, RCA, NASA, NORAD, Com-this and Com-that are all following the advice shrieked to moviegoers at the end of the old sci-fi film "The Thing" which was "Keep watching the skies! Everybody! Keep watching the skies!"