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Heading off bad space policies

Recent events highlight the public's growing interest in outer space issues. Last July 4, the Space Shuttle Columbia ended its test phase and entered the transport business. In January, a Soviet nuclear-powered satellite plummeted to earth, threatening populated areas. In February, President Reagan moved to sell two satellite systems to COMSAT, and in March he announced plans to develop laser weapons that could be deployed in space. The laser program would be a follow-on to the US anti-satellite weapon which is soon to be tested and deployed.

Such programs have a major impact on the public. The move toward space weapons is an expensive proposition and it could be militarily destabilizing. The General Accounting Office believes that the US ASAT will cost ''tens of billions'' to deploy. Once we move toward exotic weapons such as lasers, costs will multiply significantly. One estimate suggests that the missile-killing platforms proposed by the President might cost several hundred billion dollars.

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In proceeding toward space weapons we have far more to lose than to gain. Taxpayers are overburdened by defense costs. A huge space weapons program would increase defense spending even further. The US depends heavily on a peaceful space environment, and a space arms race would make it more costly there. Growing business interest in space systems could decline. It is these long-term considerations that have been forgotten as the US moves toward a space weapons race. Ultimately, it is the public that will have to pay for any mistakes made today.

As satellite technology matures, government should look to the private sector to manage a larger share of space activities. While this rule makes sense in general, we must assure that its specific application serves the public interest. At the present time, we face this dilemma with regard to the future of METSAT (meteorological weather satellites) and LANDSAT (land remote sensing satellites) programs. Decisions now under review by the administration could affect the lives of thousands of workers, billions in tax dollars, the balance of payments, and national se-curity.

Since the administration's decision to ''commercialize'' our weather and land satellites, the proposal has come under close scrutiny. The numerous studies that address this issue arrive at similar conclusions. Commercialization now could cost the government more money than it currently spends; would create government-subsidized monopolies; decrease public service; lead to decreased employment; and create foreign relations and national security problems.

The evidence indicates that we are not yet ready to ''commercialize'' our land and weather satellites. Still, a decision to commercialize has been made. As someone who has been actively involved in this issue for years, I believe that a reassessment is in order. Unless there is some new and startling evidence that has escaped me, I will continue my fight against this transfer.

If the private sector could operate the satellites in a true free market atmosphere and continue to provide the same level of service, then we have an entirely different story. But I see none of those elements in any of the current proposals.

In communications, the US has expanding commercial prospects and new systems ready to serve the public. But international institutes are blocking the way. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) determines orbital space assignments and spectrum allocations. However, recent ITU con-ferences have shifted from legitimate communications matters to a stalemated debate on extraneous issues, such as the Middle East. In the meantime, US policymakers appear slow to develop a coordinated federal posture for these conferences. Failure to correct this situation will seriously weaken US telecommunications leadership.

As a first order, the US must restructure policymaking to assure that we speak with a single voice rather than the many one hears today. Absent a clear and coherent response and a concerted effort to work within existing or new organizations, we will deny our people the benefits that satellites offer today and remove incentives to lead this enterprise in the future.

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In these three areas, a change of priorities is in order. The trend toward space weapons may entail risks and costs that are not in America's interest. Transferring METSAT and LANDSAT to the private sector makes little sense, for it could mean having to pay more for a good deal less. In making international arrangements, the ITU looks increasingly like the Law of the Sea negotiations, with some nations seeking a free ride on American shoulders. Failure to deal with these problems effectively and forcefully today will damage American interests in the future. We as a nation must:

1. Develop a comprehensive policy for outer space communications and military activities.

2. Pursue these policies with full realization that every human being in our nation will be dramatically affected by space policies in the coming years.

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