IT'S AN all-too-familiar pattern: great American re search breakthroughs will be exploited first or best by Japanese and European companies. Unless something is done soon, there is good reason to believe that this plot will unfold in one of the most potentially lucrative and technologically important markets of coming decades: the commercial uses of space.

When NASA was created in the post-Sputnik period of 1958, it had a single mission--to catch up with the Russians in the race into space. The possibility that within a mere 20 years there would be mundane practical uses of space, such as in communications, did not enter the debate. NASA's charter made it solely an R&D agency--a role in which it has achieved spectacular success.

Largely by virtue of that success, great commercial opportunities have opened up--in satellite communications and broadcasting, remote sensing of Earth resources, manufacture of materials that cannot be made on Earth and space transportation for these and other purposes. NASA is ill-equipped to facilitate the development of these markets or to provide commercial services.

Some functions have been transferred to other agencies: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates the weather satellites, and COMSAT, a quasi-governmental body, operates the civilian communications systems. Other systems, however, especially Landsat (the remote-sensing satellites) and the space shuttle, are in disarray. The present administration is, like its predecessor, studying the problem, while the United States is in danger of losing (if it has not done so already) its leadership position to European and Japanese companies that are aggressively marketing satellite services with government support and financing.

Remote sensing of resources offers hundreds of applications for public and private use. Crop growth can be followed, water resources measured, forests and wildlife managed, censuses taken, mineral resources detected and geological phenomena mapped. Land-use planning becomes possible on a new scale. The Reagan administration has cancelled two planned launches, so that as of today, the program will die in 1987. The administration wants the private sector to take over the program, but the multibillion-dollar costs of developing and launching the satellites are way out of proportion to a users' market that is still small--partly because NASA cannot service it.

There are plenty of solutions. NASA could be reconstituted into an agency equipped to exploit commercial opportunities, or another government agency could be chosen or created. COMSAT could be broadened to include the new functions. Or the program could be split, with government continuing to develop and launch the satellites and private companies distributing and analyzing the data.

One thing is certain--the government still has a crucial role to play.