Should space go commercial?
The United States must soon make crucial decisions concerning the fate of its satellite systems programs. This could affect the lives of thousands of workers, billions of dollars in government expenditures, foreign relations, and a host of other concerns that are of great importance to our nation. We must decide whether or not we will transfer the program to the private sector, continue operations under government management, or cancel much of our satellite program altogether. The two satellite systems presently being scrutinized by a myriad of private corporations and government agencies are METSAT (meteorological weather satellites) and LANDSAT (land remote sensing satellites).
I believe we must ensure the continuity of both satellite programs. The importance of the weather satellites (METSAT) hardly needs to be emphasized. One need only imagine life without the timely and accurate weather information services we now enjoy free of charge.
The LANDSAT system, although less well-known by the general public, is also extremely important. In addition to its importance in scientific research and technological advancement, the LANDSAT satellite provides us with invaluable information and is used in a multitude of specific applications including crop yield forecasting, forest and rangeland management, petroleum and mineral exploration, environmental control, water quality assessment, monitoring the effects of natural disasters, and land use planning, to name a few. But I believe that we have yet to realize the most important applications of this data. The information from LANDSAT tells us a great deal about the world in which we live. But, as our scientific knowledge and technology increase, the use of this data in knowing and understanding our world will become almost boundless.
The most immediate question that has to be resolved is the one of commercialization. Although transfers should be made whenever private enterprise can responsibly and effectively assume control of government operations, we must ensure that the true elements of free enterprise are included in any proposed commercialization. I have introduced legislation, S. 480, that will help in gaining these assurances. Some of my specific concerns include:
Cost savings. There are legitimate arguments that commercialization of the weather and land remote sensing satellite systems will cost the government more money than it will save.
Monopolization. Some of the proposals under consideration involve heavy government subsidization of a single company. Both the LANDSAT and the METSAT operations now have a virtual monopoly in their respective markets. This would put the US in a position of subsidizing monopolies - a curious development in a program designed to encourage private enterprise. Excessive subsidization of ''private enterprise'' encourages, rather than eliminates, wasteful government spending.
Employment. It is possible that many government employees would lose their jobs as a result of commercialization. Although it is true that some of these positions would be replaced in the private sector, almost definitely there would be a net decrease in employment. It would be hard to justify a proposal that eliminates jobs, costs the government additional money, and hands ready-made monopolies over to a single corporation.
Service to the public. We must make certain that vital weather information and services to the public are not jeopardized by commercialization of the weather satellite system.
Foreign relations. There is a host of complex international information agreements between countries regarding the weather satellites (METSAT) that must be reconciled.
In the case of the weather satellites, there is little doubt that their existence is ensured, regardless of the outcome of commercialization. The LANDSAT system, however, has met with a budget axe and is scheduled to be eliminated in the near future. If this system is not taken over by a responsible private company, it is imperative that we ensure continuity of this type of data. An obvious solution is reinstatement of the LANDSAT system through congressional action.
Another alternative is to utilize the new French SPOT satellite that is scheduled to be launched around 1985. The US could do this at minimal expense and ensure a continued data flow to the US government and commercial users. Preliminary cost estimates indicate that, by utilizing the existing EROS Data Center in Sioux Falls, S.D, the US could receive the French satellite signal for as little as $10 million capital investment and $1.5 million annual operating cost. Because much of the data obtainable from the two satellites is expected to be mutually complementary, this small additional expense could pay for itself many times over in the years to come.
The future of space utilization and commercialization is crucial to continued economic and technological advancement, and a better understanding of our own planet. Congress should carefully consider all alternatives that are available to us, and act in the best interests of our nation and the scientific world.