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Selling US weather satellites

At first glance, President Reagan's plan to sell the US environmental satellite system may strike some people as quixotic. But it would be unwise to dismiss it out of hand.

The only bidder so far - the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) - claims it can gather the data more efficiently and save the government around $1 billion in costs over a decade. This proposal deserves careful study.

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To begin with, there is nothing novel about private ownership of satellite systems that serve a broad public interest. US communications satellites are privately owned except for the defense communications system. Even here, military users are turning to private carriers to meet some of their needs.

Also, the new Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS), to be launched by the space shuttle and used to relay astronaut and satellite data, is privately owned and operated. Its services are only leased by the National Aeronautical and Space Administra-tion.

Critics of Mr. Reagan's plan have objected that people would have to pay fees for weather services they now take for granted. This is nonsense. Such services depend on the data satellites produce, not on who owns them. Selling the satellites does not mean a case for selling the weather services, such as hurricane forecasting, which use the satellite data. That step would be unwise. The government would contract for the data it needs and the public would be served as usual.

Critics also wonder how a private company could cope with intergovernment obligations to share data through the world weather system and serve foreign users of earth resources (Landsat) satellite data. Again, the US government would buy the data it needs to share. As for dealing with international complexities, COMSAT already is a world leader in the communications satellite business where most foreign systems are government owned and which is governed by international agreement.

COMSAT submitted its offer in response to solicitations of interest from the Department of Commerce. This reflects the administration's view that private enterprise is the driving force of the US economy. Thus Mr. Rea-gan believes that government should buy goods and services from private suppliers wherever possible. He claims - and COMSAT claims - this can lead to greater efficiency and cost savings. Such claims should be examined critically, insuring that the government and the taxpayers get the best deal possible.

There may turn out to be compelling reasons to retain public ownership of the environmental satellites. If so, these should emerge from a thorough study of COMSAT's proposal. They should not be assumed a priori.