If all goes according to plan, a Titan II rocket will blast away from its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., this afternoon carrying a satellite and the long-term prospects of a Prince George's County-based technology company.
Tucked in the rocket's nose is Landsat 6, the latest in a series of satellites designed to generate photo images of the Earth, from an orbit of 400 miles, that Earth Observation Satellite Co. (EOSAT) markets to customers around the world.
A successful Landsat 6 launch "will be a major boost to our operations," said Richard Mroczynski, an EOSAT executive, and would result in a "relatively dramatic" jump in sales, which totaled about $30 million last year.
EOSAT -- a joint venture of Martin Marietta Corp. and Hughes Aircraft Co. -- was formed in 1985 as part of a Reagan administration move to turn some government services over to private industry.
EOSAT's role is to operate government-owned satellites and collect and market the data. It employs more than 100 workers at its Lanham headquarters and 14 at a ground station in Norman, Okla.
Landsat 6 represents a $256.5 million investment by the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including the $220 million satellite and cost of the launch.
While the government will still own the Landsat 6, EOSAT will be responsible for the approximately $20-million-a-year cost of operating the satellite.
Landsat 6 will provide EOSAT with the capacity to provide images of the world on a regular basis for the first time in about three years. Aging equipment aboard two satellites, launched in the early 1980s, has forced the company to limit its regular service to images of the United States, Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Mroczynski said.
As a result, growth of EOSAT's customer base has stalled. Images from other parts of the world have accounted for about a third of the company's business, said Mr. Mroczynski.
Once in a polar orbit, Landsat 6 will be able to photograph any point of the Earth once every 16 days.
It will also allow the company to market images more detailed than those currently available from the older satellites, making EOSAT competitive with a similar French satellite system.
Mr. Mroczynski said that India and Russia also operate remote sensor satellites similar to Landsat, and that Canada and China are expected to launch their systems in the near future.
A failed launch would be a significant setback. Landsat 7 is not scheduled for launch until near the end of the decade, and the company is not certain how long it can continue collecting data from the two satellites now in orbit.
Landsat 4 was turned off about six weeks ago in hopes of preserving its communication equipment for emergency use.
Landsat photos of the Earth are used by the U.S. government, foreign governments and private industry for such things as petroleum and mineral exploration, urban and transportation planning, map-making, flood control, monitoring worldwide crop estimates and tracking deforestation of tropical rain forests.
Maryland, for instance, used the service to help inventory coastal wetlands.
Landsat was used to monitor recent flooding in the Midwest, verify the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident and track the Yellowstone National Park forest fire. The military used it during the Persian Gulf war to monitor oil well fires and to create up-to-date battlefield maps.
The U.S. government is EOSAT's biggest customer, accounting for about 45 percent of its total sales. Currently, various U.S. government agencies pay the same as other customers, which include 80 other nations. But under a legal change last year, the United States will be offered "preferential pricing" for data from the new satellite, Mr.Mroczynski said.
On the commercial side, Mr. Mroczynski said that oil companies account for the biggest percentage of sales.
EOSAT has a shaky past. The first threat came in spring of 1987. Under terms of its agreement with the government, EOSAT was to receive $250 million in federal money for the development and launch of two new satellites. After appropriating $125 million, Congress halted funding. After six months of uncertainty, Congress eventually came up with money to keep the program going.
Another major threat came two years ago when the Commerce Department ordered EOSAT to shut down the Landsat program because of budget shortfalls.
But a few weeks later, the National Space Council under then-Vice President Dan Quayle concluded the data was valuable to the government and arranged funding to keep Landsat operating.