The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to more than double the price it charges to carry satellites and other cargo into earth orbit aboard the space shuttle in 1985 and after.
Reliable sources said the space agency will charge shuttle users as much as $97.5 million to occupy its 65,000-pound cargo bay in 1985, $106 million in 1986 and $116 million in 1987, exclusive of the $4.2 million it charges each shuttle customer as its standard user fee.
The new price schedule compares with the $42 million it now charges customers for space in the shuttle cargo bay, a price that holds out to 1985 and which includes the $4.2 million user fee.
Most shuttle flights will carry an average of three satellites for three different customers, and the cargo bay charges will be prorated among them based on how much room they take up.
The reasons given for the stiff price increase are inflation, the budget cuts that have eliminated missions and reduced the number of shuttle flights in the late '80s, unexpected increases in the cost of producing space shuttle hardware and unexpected difficulties in refurbishing and maintaining the shuttle between its first two flights.
The increased costs are primarily in the production of the solid rocket boosters that put the shuttle into earth orbit and the lightweight fuel tank.
The latter weighs 8,000 pounds less than the current fuel tank and will be flown for the first time on the sixth shuttle flight, next year.
The rail cost of transporting the huge solid rocket engines from the Thiokol Corp. plant in Utah to Cape Canaveral in Florida also has skyrocketed.
At the same time, trouble with the hydraulics that steer the shuttle in powered flight, the fuel cells that provide its electricity in orbital flight and the tanks and pumps that feed supercold liquid oxygen and hydrogen into the shuttle fuel tanks before launch have forced manpower increases at the Kennedy Space Center.
"Our cost increases have been distributed evenly between manpower and hardware," Dr. Stanley I. Weiss, associate administrator for space transportation operations, said not long ago. "They are both substantial."
The new shuttle pricing schedule comes when the shuttle is getting increased competition from Ariane, the European Space Agency's newly developed rocket launcher. Ariane carries far less weight into earth orbit than the shuttle and has been priced higher than the shuttle for individual satellites. But its customers are offered more favorable financing terms than those of the U.S. space agency.
Ariane has experienced only one failure in its four flights. Its first operational flight will come this April, when it carries a navigation satellite into orbit.
ESA has already planned 19 missions on each of which Ariane will carry two satellites.
Most Ariane customers are communications satellites, some of them U.S. satellites that are double-booked on Ariane and the shuttle and whose owners are waiting to get the best price and launching schedule before deciding which to fly.
By 1984, ESA will have two launch pads in French Guiana, each capable of handling four Ariane launches per year.
ESA is also upgrading the Ariane 1 rocket, which by 1986 will include four different rocket boosters capable of putting more than 10,000 pounds of payload into orbit 22,400 miles above the earth.