Look for another civilian shot at space sometime this summer. Arc Technologies of Redwood City, Calif., will try to launch a small sounding rocket capable of making meteorological and astrophysical observations and providing a brief microgravity environment for industrial process experiments. If Arc, which has heretofore kept its plans and activities secret, does get a shot off, it will be the third attempt by civilians to develop a competitive alternative to the government's monopoly on space-launch services.

Percheron, the first rocket financed by Houston real estate developer David Hannah and a group of wealthy Texans, exploded dramatically on its Matagorda Island launch pad in August 1981 (see INC., July 1982, page 64). This past September, however, the Hannah group's second rocket, Conestoga I, soared just as dramatically from the same island into suborbital flight over the Gulf of Mexico.

Private enterprise's first suceessful space launch was the technological equivalent of driving a '55 Chevy from Cleveland to Cincinnati. The Conestoga I, a Minuteman I second-stage rocket that Hannah's company, Space Services Inc. of America (SSIA), bought from the government for $365,000, carried a payload of 40 gallons of water 321 miles in 10.5 minutes.

SSIA was aiming for a psychological, not a technological, breakthrough. "It's one thing," says Hannah, "to say that you're going to launch something into space -- deal with the government agencies, to find and finance a launch site and a launch team. It's something else to actually do it. We've done it, done it with our own money, and done it in a responsible way."

The launch was also intended to attract new investors to SSIA, which to date has spent nearly $6 million put up by 57 investors. Hannah estimates that he will need an additional $20 million to finance his next rocket, the Conestoga 300, which will be designed and built mostly from scratch for SSIA.

SSIA's next rocket will still be small, designed to lift light earth-resource-mapping satellites into low orbit. But David Ross, president of Phoenix Engineering Inc., of Redwood City, doubts that there is any money in that market. "Why," he asks, "would an oil company want to spend $2 million to $3 million to buy and launch a satellite when it can do the same thing from an airplane for $3,000 per hour?"

Phoenix, an upstart competitor of SSIA, was started by several Percheron engineers after that rocket blew up on its launch pad. It sees a more luerative market in launching expensive communication satellites into higher earth orbits and in selling launch services to companies that want to manufacture pharmaceuticals, ball bearings, and other products in the weightlessness of space. Both tasks demand a relatively powerful rocket.

Lacking the Texas group's money, however, Phoenix has thus far managed only a test firing of a one-sixteenth-scale rocket motor. The first possible date for a test launch is mid-1984.

While Ross concedes that the flight of Conestoga I proves nothing technologically, he says it did have the effect of making the government acknowledge that the private sector can and should be in the space-launch business. "It was a very big conceptual victory. "