The Washington lawyer thinks it's good news. The Air Force general thinks it's bad news. But they both agree it's big news.
Before this year is out, the lawyer said, at least one U.S. aerospace firm will take the unprecedented step of hiring the Soviet Union to put an American communications satellite into space.
The Reagan administration could derail the contract by refusing to grant the export license needed to send the American satellite to the Soviet launching pad. But serious negotiations are going ahead anyway in the belief that such U.S.-Soviet business deals are inevitable.
"During the next few years," said Grier C. Raclin, a Washington lawyer serving as a a go-between for U.S. satellite firms and the Soviet Union, 60 to 75 commercial satellites, with a total market value of about $7 billion, "will be sitting on the ground waiting to be launched" rather than making money for their owners. The pressure is already on to find big launching rockets, he said, creating a market for the Soviet Proton booster that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to exploit.
"This would not have happened before Gorbachev and glasnost," Raclin said of prospective U.S.-Soviet space launching deals, alluding to the new Soviet policy that is widely translated as "openness."
Raclin's associate, Sarah C. Carey, a former State Department employe who is doing some of the negotiating, said "the Soviet structure which prevented such arrangements in the past is crumbling faster than our own." The Soviet Union is promoting its launching services through a two-year-old agency called Glavkosmos.
Reagan administration officials have shown no sign of accommodating U.S. aerospace firms or Gorbachev by granting the licenses needed to export a U.S. satellite to a Soviet launching pad. However, Raclin and Carey contend that commercial pressures and free-trade principles, together with Soviet willingness to allow Americans to keep their satellites under surveillance until they are lifted into space, are pushing the issue their way.
Congress is just beginning to test these new waters. Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), a member of the Science and Technology Committee, said the idea of turning to the Soviet Union to launch American satellites "is extremely strange to us . . . . We sell them one hell of a lot of wheat. I think we should be at least be open-minded about the possibility of purchasing their goods and services," including launching services.
Loss of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, is one big reason the gap is available for the Soviets and other space-launching nations to fill. The shuttle is the only American vehicle able to place heavy satellites in orbit.
The Soviet Union is offering bargain prices, according to U.S. negotiators. One quoted a price tag of $30 million to put a 4,000-pound spacecraft into orbit 22,500 miles above the Earth, half of what U.S. launching companies or Europe's Arianespace would charge.
"Your Fast Track to the Stars" promised the headline in an advertisement circulated in the United States by another U.S.-Soviet go-between firm, Space Commerce Corp. of Houston. The message attempts to exploit the gap left by the Challenger disaster and the promised, but still doubtful, launch of its successor, Discovery, in June 1988.
"Your payload just doesn't pay if it's on the ground waiting for launch system problems to be solved," the ad stated. "You need a proven, reliable ticket to orbit. We have it: Proton."
This turn of events bothers U.S. military officers such as Air Force Gen. John L. Piotrowski, head of the U.S. Space Command. Holding up the Proton ad, Piotrowski said it is further evidence that "our position as the world's most advanced military spacefaring nation is at risk" because of the vigor and versatility of the Soviet space effort.
The general said the United States has not come to grips with the realities of today's Soviet space program, "perhaps because we cannot swallow that the United States, the nation that put men on the moon, is not taking the steps necessary to prevent another nation from becoming the world's preeminent military space power."