An interagency spat, started when the Agriculture Department decided to pull out of the Landsat program, now threatens to create even more trouble for the planned "commercialization" of the nation's land and weather satellites.
The land and weather satellites are now operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a scientific arm of the Commerce Department. Last March, NOAA administrator John V. Byrne announced that the government would sell the satellites to private companies, much as the government's communications satellites were turned over to private concerns such as the Communications Satellite Corp. (Comsat).
Protests were immediately raised in Congress and elsewhere. One of the problems was that the land-sensing satellite program, originally scheduled to put up several more satellites into the 1990s, was cut short by the Reagan administration in order to encourage private companies to take over where the government left off.
But the current land-sensing satellite in space is malfunctioning and is virtually useless. The next, and the last satellite planned by this administration, had its schedule pushed forward so there would be only a short time without an operating satellite in space.
Other countries, notably France, are planning to put up their own land-sensing satellites and hope to get a lead in the world market for crop, mineral and other land satellite data.
But now, just as Commerce is seeking bidders for its satellites, Agriculture has said it no longer needs or wants Landsat data.
The department has been the largest single user of Landsat data, even though it paid NOAA only $3 million to $4 million for the data in fiscal 1983, said Bruce MacGill, NOAA's budget director.
NOAA officials now say that USDA's decision not only hurts the credibility of those trying to sell Landsat but also leaves NOAA short of funds to operate the current satellite or launch its successor. So virtually the whole Landsat program is expected to be put on hold while the dispute between the agencies is worked out.
Cary Gravatt, a Commerce official on temporary duty with the Source Evaluation Board, a new department unit set up to prepare and review the Landsat bids, said that while the loss of Landsat's biggest customer might appear to be a problem to those who want to go into the business, "it is really such a small part of what the total market must be, that it shouldn't matter much."
He said that a commercial company trying to operate land satellites will have to generate $50 million to $150 million in business just to break even, so a loss of what might have amounted to less than 10 percent of the market would not be overwhelming. The big problem for a commercial Landsat company will be generating the other 90 percent of business, not the smaller government share.
But Commerce nevertheless is battling to reverse Agriculture's decision, especially because it jeopardizes the rest of the Landsat program.
J. Dawson Ahalt, deputy assistant secretary for economics at Agriculture, said Agriculture was abandoning Landsat because the current satellite is crippled and crop data can be gotten in other ways for less money. Ahalt said that in the future, Agriculture would use weather satellite information to make crop forecasts. The data from Landsat includes direct images of land and crops, but weather data, primarily pictures of action in the atmosphere, can suffice, he said.
The satellite has created debates among other government agencies, the latest one being over the century-old policy to give away, or sell without restriction, all weather data to any nation asking for it. If a private company takes over the system, will the company then have the power to modify that policy?
NOAA officials say there are proponents of both sides now debating the matter within the State Department and elsewhere.