South Pacific nations vie to launch others into orbit

Thirty-one years after Sputnik, there's another space race heating up - this time in the Pacific. Australia, Indonesia, Kiribati, and the state of Hawaii are chasing the opportunity to be the world's next equatorial launch site. And Australia (with two teams at work on space-port projects) looks like the front-runner.

One Australian concept envisons a $5 billion, privately funded launch complex including three launch pads, an ultra-long airstrip for space shuttles and supersonic aircraft, sea-cargo port, and tourist resorts.

Located on the tropical northeast tip of Australia, the remote Cape York site offers ``all the space you'd ever want, year round fine weather, good communications, and a stable government,'' boasts a spokesman for the Cape York Space Agency, a consortium of some 70 firms.

The Australian Space Group favors a less grandiose Cape York project, initially focused on launch facilities alone. Three major Australian firms and one United States aerospace company are backing this concept.

Several factors give impetus to a Pacific launch pad:

Equatorial sites mean cheaper launch costs. The Earth's spin - strongest at the equator - helps to fling spacecraft into orbit, thus cutting fuel costs.

Unmanned rocket launchers (and new launch sites) are in demand. With the US space-shuttle program on hold, a sizable backlog of communication satellites and scientific payloads has developed.

The only other equatorial launching site, in French Guyana, is booked solid for four years.

From a geographical, technical, and political standpoint, Cape York looks promising. But the project remains a long way from getting off the ground. One of the most pressing questions yet to be answered: Can it be commercially viable without government funding?

Apart from providing basic infrastructure - roads, electricity, and tax concessions - the budget-conscious Australian government has no interest in financing this project. And no launch site has yet been built and run without huge infusions of public funds.

For this reason, Dr. John Simmons suggests the Cape York planners may have to scale down their concept. ``People are thinking too big,'' says the head of the National Commission on Space Engineering. ``If they try to make the first rocket a Titan [used for launching communication satellites], this project could die. In two years, it could start with small rockets, and evolve to big ones within about five years.''

Dennis Dunbar, managing director of the San Diego-based General Dynamics commercial launch services division, agrees with the evolutionary approach. If Cape York tries to recoup development costs estimated at $1 to $5 billion by charging a user's fee alone, ``it won't be cost effective for the big three [General Dynamics, Martin Marietta, McDonnell Douglas] launch-vehicle contractors to participate,'' he says.

But there are two wild cards that could change the economics significantly: Japan and China.

``The Japanese are scouting around for additional launch sites,'' notes Dr. Gordon Pike of Aussat, the Australian satellite-maker.

Japan's support would be crucial. It is developing larger satellites and rockets, and making plans for shuttles and an operational space station in the late 1990s. And since both Japan and China are shopping for new launch sites, they may be willing to commit funds.

A site in Indonesia was given something of a boost recently when a senior Chinese official reportedly said, ``It would be ideal if Indonesia, China, Singapore, and other Asian countries teamed up in establishing such a facility to promote peaceful cooperation in space techniques.'' Indonesia is looking for foreign partners to develop its $800 million space-port concept.

US aerospace firms are exploring a site in Hawaii, which, though further from equator, is accessible.

An $8.25 billion plan for developing a space port on Christmas Island, a former US and British nuclear test site, is being floated by the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

``There will be a space port some place in the Pacific Basin,'' predicts Dr. Simmons. The decision point for Australia is likely to come within six to nine months, with the completion of the Cape York feasibility studies.

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