The Defense Department wants to develop a three-stage rocket capable of being lauched into space from a B-52 bomber to secretly place military satellites in orbit, The New York Times reported.

Pentagon officals want to test the rocket as part of a program to develop lightweight satellites and launchers for several military uses, including reconnaissance and communi-cations, the newspaper said.The experimental rocket is being pursued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which oversees futuristic projects for the Pentagon.

The Times reported the Pentagon signed a contract May 13 with Orbital Sciences Corp. of Fairfax, Va., near Washington, to buy one test rocket with an option to buy five more at a cost of about $6 million each.

The newspaper said the Pentagon also wants to test the rocket as early as next year. But constuction of a prototype does not necessarily mean the military will adopt or deploy the system.

Air Force spokesmen had no comment Sunday on the report.

The three-stage, solid-fuel rocket is to weigh 15 tons and measure 50 feet in length.

The Times said the test of the rocket is to be conducted by a special B-52 at Edwards Air Force Base in California that once was used for test flights of the X-15 experimental rocket plane.

Some military planners quoted by the Times said the air-launched rocket system would be inexpensive, less vulnerable to attack than spaceports - such as Edwards or Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida - and ideal for putting small spy satellites into space quickly.

But Donald Latham, a former assistant defense secretary, told the Times, "The nation looked into air-launched rockets 20 years ago and found them wanting. There are better ways to make systems low cost and survivable."

The Times reported the plan has stirred concern in Congress because the rocket could be launched in secrecy. Under a decade-old agreement, space-faring nations must notify the United Nations of all payloads going into orbit.