Last February, President Reagan unveiled a plan to give private business a bigger role in space projects, thus ending NASA's monopoly. That plan was more than idle theorizing. It is beginning to bear fruit - and in ways that will directly benefit Utah.
The Reagan policy includes (1) use of privately-owned rockets to launch satellites, (2) a pledge to lease a major part of a proposed private space station, (3) setting aside room on the shuttle for a commercially-owned spacelab, and (4) cooperation in construction of private launch facilities.The first item in that policy is now a reality. A $1 million government contract for a commercial rocket launch has been awarded by NASA to Space Services Inc., of Houston, Texas, a company headed by former astronaut Deke Slayton. It will pay for the launch of a scientific satellite from a site in New Mexico - a sub-orbital flight, just up and back down. But the company has the capacity for orbital launches as well.
The two-stage rocket Starfire used in the launch was partially built in Utah. The first stage solid-fuel motor was made by Morton Thiokol at Brigham City. It has been test fired at a Texas site, marking the first time any private company anywhere has done that without a dime of government help.
As the use of private launches grows, more solid fuel motors will be needed - a potential source of business for Thiokol.
Although the shuttle is flying once again, the long delay in the program after the Challenger disaster has prompted officials to look at other possibilities. In any case, the shuttle will not be able to carry all the payloads wanted for space experiments.
If different private companies are doing different things in space and have their own rockets, the whole space program would not collapse because of an accident in one project - as happened with the shuttle.
The nation is taking the first hesitant steps toward privatizing at least some of the space program. Eventually it could lead to such things as private astronauts who work for business firms instead of the government.
This could produce a more diverse, yet efficient, space program that may save the taxpayers some money.