The Reagan administration, which had suggested that space should be open to private enterprise and that the space shuttle might be turned over to industry, last week sent Congress a new shuttle pricing policy that could make it uneconomical for private industry to take that step.
For the three years starting Oct. 1, 1988, the White House said it wants to auction the shuttle's cargo bay to foreign and commercial customers at a minimum rate of $74 million for a full bay.
This would mean that owners of three satellites could share a mission and pay NASA a little less than $25 million apiece for use of the shuttle, or about $1 million more than they pay now for shuttle launches. Europe's Arianespace SA, based in France, charges $25 million to launch a satellite.
The new pricing policy, more than a year in the making, represents a victory for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and defeat for the Transportation Department and Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole. The department had argued for a full-bay price no lower than $129 million, which is what it said would encourage private industry to get into the launch vehicle business on its own.
At least two companies want to compete with NASA and Arianespace.
General Dynamics Corp. has signed a letter of intent with NASA to use the Atlas-Centaur rocket, and Transpace Carriers Inc. has signed to use the Delta rocket to carry satellites into space. These companies have said they cannot compete with a shuttle price of less than $40 million to send up a single satellite.
The Transportation Department argued for a higher shuttle launch price to improve private industry's bargaining power, but NASA said a higher charge would send customers to Arianespace, which has booked more than a third of the world's future commercial satellite launch traffic. Four years ago Arianespace had less than 20 percent of the traffic.
In the administration, the Commerce Department is understood to have recommended a floor price of $64 million to bring shuttle charges below what Arianespace gets for launching a single satellite. The White House chose the compromise of $74 million for the shuttle cargo bay on grounds that it would recover more of the shuttle's operating costs.
The new shuttle price drew criticism from Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the House subcommittee on space science, who said the $74 million minimum price, though considered low by some, is far too high.