THE clock is ticking now for the world's first privately run satellite launch complex: T-minus five years and counting. On Dec. 21, the Australia government gave the Cape York spaceport project ``conditional endorsement.'' Federal funding, apart from tax breaks and some infrastructure, will not be provided. And Canberra's support depends on overcoming of environmental, aboriginal, and legal hurdles.
Nonetheless, this initial official nod of approval is considered crucial to securing financing, and encouraging potential partners, suppliers, and customers to sign on.
The Cape York project is an attempt by a consortium of United States, Japanese, and Australian companies to enter the competitive satellite-launching business using Soviet-built Zenit rockets.
The Cape York Space Agency (CYSA) plans to build a $350 million (Australian: US$280 million) launch site in northeast Australia. By 1995, CYSA plans to orbit its first satellite, and quickly build to five satellites a year in a bid to capture 15 to 25 percent of the world market. The equatorial location - matched only by the European Space Agency's complex in French Guiana - offers the advantage of heavier payloads and lower fuel costs due to Earth's spin. Some US$7 million has been spent on feasibility studies to date.
Government support for the project is necessary not only for domestic but for international reasons. The bulk of the satellite market uses US technology. Putting US technology on Soviet launch vehicles (assembled in Australia) will require a US export license under the Coordinating Committee (COCOM) agreement that restricts transfers of ``strategic'' technology to communist nations.
To allay COCOM concerns, the US aerospace firm, United Technologies, is expected to manage the Cape York ground operations and only Australian technical personnel will handle the satellites.
But such assurances have not dissolved US opposition. The US Congress is considering several bills to prevent the nascent commercial launch industries in China and the Soviet Union from winning any future bids to orbit Western-made satellites. But the debate in Congress appears to be driven more by commercial than strategic considerations.
The US commercial launch industry does not want to lose market share to these less expensive overseas competitors. On the other hand, US satellitemakers could increase sales if the export restrictions were relaxed. And several recent events have given CYSA officials reason to be optimistic that the ``technology transfer'' barrier may be crumbling:
The dramatic changes in Eastern Europe have several Western European nations clamoring for a review of COCOM.
President Bush restored before Christmas approval for China to launch three US-made satellites (two for Australia's Aussat).
Bush offered at Malta to give the USSR most-favored-nation trading status and made overtures for increased economic cooperation.
On the Australian scene, spaceport advocates at the National Space Engineering Symposium last month painted the project as an opportunity to diversify Australia's tourism and resource-based economy. ``I imagine that most parents if asked whether they would prefer their son or daughter be a waiter at a tourist resort or an aerospace technician would answer the latter,'' says Susan Corley, a Sydney-based attorney and CYSA's legal adviser.
Cape York is also viewed as a means of restoring national prestige and lost aerospace ground. Australia was the third nation in the world to build and launch its own satellite in 1967.
A British-built rocket range in south Australia provided the impetus. But when the British pulled out in 1971, the Australian government mothballed the facility, believing it too expensive to operate alone.