The White House yesterday announced President Reagan's plan to transport America's space program into the next century, reaffirming support for a permanently manned space station and, in a continuing effort to foster a commercial space industry, requiring federal backing for a small, private orbital station.
The new policy also calls for $100 million in next year's budget to begin developing technologies for major missions to the moon and Mars.
"It shifts the major responsibility for space development from public to the private sector," Commerce Secretary C. William Verity said. He made the announcement with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher and Transportation Secretary James H. Burnley IV at a White House briefing.
Fletcher said the policy "clearly establishes that, for the first time, the United States has a long-range goal of expanding human presence and activity beyond Earth orbit into the solar system."
Burnley used the event to announce that his department yesterday approved the nation's first commercial launch license, permitting Conatec Inc. of Lanham to launch a series of sounding rockets in October. The rockets will carry microgravity research payloads for a European industrial firm.
The development of a private space industry, he said, will assure that U.S. space transportation systems have "sufficient resiliency to allow continued operations despite failures in any single system," a reference to the temporary grounding of virtually the entire U.S. rocket fleet after several launch accidents, including the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger disaster that killed seven.
Yesterday's announcement, originally scheduled Jan. 26, was stalled by a dispute among the three agencies over support for the private automated space laboratory, proposed by Space Industries Inc. of Houston and known as the Industrial Space Facility (ISF).
National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials opposed funding it, on grounds that the money would come from their space station budget and delay it further. Commerce officials supported the proposal. Burnley objected to funding it without competitive bidding. The concept has bipartisan support in Congress, but some members have expressed reservations about such a large funding commitment.
The Space Industries partnership has proposed that NASA spend as much as $700 million to lease space aboard its facility over five years, Fletcher said. The president intends the government to be the "anchor tenant," with NASA and other agencies leasing about 70 percent of it, he said. The administration will open the contract to competitive bidding, but administration officials and an ISF spokesman said they know of no other companies positioned to compete. The contract is to be signed within 150 days, under an expedited process designed to preserve a key advantages: Its simplicity will enable it to be in orbit several years sooner than the larger, costlier manned space station.
Fletcher said that the project will not drain money from the space station and that the administration will ask Congress to add funds for it to NASA's budget.
Reagan approved the new policy on Jan. 5, after five months of sometimes heated discussions among nearly a dozen agencies and offices.
Members of Congress have indicated that NASA will have a hard time obtaining the 30 percent budget increase for fiscal 1989 the president is expected to request next week, including $1 billion for the large space station. Some have criticized the policy as vague.
Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of a key House space subcommittee, said the policy "is a first step toward addressing the lack of focus in our space policy. But many questions remain unanswered . . . . The burden of implementing these future goals will rest on the shoulders of the next administration."
The policy also:Proposes that Congress place a $200,000 ceiling on damage awards to third parties injured in commercial launch accidents. Promises to make the shuttle fleet's expended external tanks available to universities and private firms at no cost for use in research, storage or manufacturing in space. Commits the administration to try to include a research module developed by a District firm, Spacehab Inc., in the shuttle's cargo bay early in the next decade.