Commercial spy satellites are about to let anyone with a credit card peer down from the heavens into the compounds of dictators or the back yards of neighbors with high fences.
The first satellite is scheduled to fly into orbit in April or May, another in December and perhaps a dozen during the next decade. The launchings will end a monopoly that advanced nations held for nearly four decades on orbital espionage.
Rivaling military spy craft in the sharpness of their photos, the new American-made satellites are designed to see objects as small as a yard or so in diameter -- cars and hot tubs, for example.
While the new craft pose knotty security and privacy questions, their builders tend to play down such issues and instead pledge to aid cartography, law enforcement, oil exploration, disaster relief and urban planning.
"The possibilities are endless," says a brochure from Earthwatch Inc. of Longmont, Colo., which is first in line to send up the new satellites. "Vacationers will plan exotic sailing cruises along foreign coasts. Small retail businesses will have a better understanding of demographics."
Images are expected to cost as little as a few hundred dollars each, depending on whether an order can be filled from company archives or requires a satellite to turn a camera on a new part of Earth.
The Clinton administration approved this commercial use of spy technology in 1994 to help aerospace companies facing post-Cold War contractions and to challenge foreign rivals in the emerging industry of civilian surveillance from space. Today, much of the American activity involves gear and contractors that once were, or still are, part of the government complex for military espionage.
While federal and private experts have quietly discussed the shift for years, the actual debut of a fleet of commercial spy satellites is expected to prompt wide debate over the new industry's promise and peril for nations and individuals.
"The biggest market for this information is going to be foreign governments that can't afford their own reconnaissance systems," said Albert Wheelon, the former CIA official who helped shape the nation's early spy-satellite program.
Analysts say the implications of the shift will probably take decades to sort out politically, militarily and perhaps legally, in court cases involving possible invasions of privacy.
"It's bad because it's going to give countries like Libya and North Korea reconnaissance capabilities like those of the United States," said John Pike, head of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington. "But it's good because it's going to significantly improve the ability of citizens to monitor governments."
Federal officials say that the risks and benefits were carefully weighed before the 1994 decision and that economic gains will offset military or diplomatic losses. A vibrant economy, they say, is one of the most important elements of national security.
"We have a chance to change the world," said Douglas Gerrull, president of Earthwatch, which has four satellites in the works. "The basic premise is that the more people know, the safer we are."
Pub Date: 2/10/97